By Piya Sinha-Roy
PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - After exploring the quarter-life crises of young adults in the critical and commercial hit "Garden State" a decade ago, actor-director Zach Braff turned his eye to examine the existential dilemmas faced by parents in his new film "Wish I Was Here."
Braff plays 35-year-old Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor and married father of two, who decides to home school his children after the family can no longer afford the tuition for the private Jewish school the kids attend.
As Aidan battles with his own spiritual beliefs while he attempts to teach his "indoctrinated little matzo balls," he must find the motivation to move into a new chapter in his life and finally take responsibility for being a father who provides for his family.
"Wish I Was Here" marks Braff's return to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival exactly 10 years after he made his directorial debut with "Garden State," a film that garnered the actor-director critical praise and became a cult hit.
As an actor, Braff, 38, rose to prominence as daydreaming doctor J.D. on television sitcom "Scrubs," and "Wish I Was Here" sees him reunite with fellow "Scrubs" cast member Donald Faison, who plays a small role.
Braff, who co-wrote the film with his brother, Adam, told the audience at the movie's premiere this weekend that "Wish I Was Here" reflected the personal experiences that the two of them have had in their lives.
"'Garden State' was all the things me and my 25-year-old friends were obsessing about and talking about and worried about," Braff said. "With this, my brother and I are sharing the things we're talking about. He's got two young children, so what are the things he's wrestling with and teaching them? For me, it's my own spirituality." Braff does not have children.
He blends moments of levity and gravity in his film, from a rabbi on a Segway driving into a wall to his dying father, Gabe, wanting to make amends with his two sons. In one poignant moment, Gabe, played by actor Mandy Patinkin, says, "When life becomes tragic, it always circles back to comedy," something that "Wish I Was Here" plays with throughout.
The film's final touching scenes brought tears to most in the premiere's audience, generating a standing ovation for Braff.
"With films, the ones I love the most are the ones that are someone's unique story," the director said. "This is a unique story. No one else could tell this story that my brother and I wrote."
THE FILM THAT KICKSTARTER MADE
"Wish I Was Here" has already gained buzz after Braff sought partial funding through crowdsourcing website Kickstarter in April 2013, raising $2 million within 48 hours and $3 million overall from more than 46,000 people.
Braff said he was encouraged by his producer, Stacey Sher, to use Kickstarter after being discouraged by traditional methods of funding that would force him and his brother to make significant sacrifices in their script.
"(Sher) said it is kind of ballsy to put yourself out there ... but if it were to work, there would be no compromises, you and your brother could make the film you had in your brain, with all its weirdness," the filmmaker said.
The project also drew a strong cast of well-known names. Actress Kate Hudson plays Aidan's wife, Sarah, who supports her husband's acting dreams but also finds herself masking her own unhappiness and frustrations of being the sole provider for the family as she struggles through a mundane job.
Josh Gad plays Aidan's reclusive brother, Noah, who is stuck in a state of permanent adolescence, while Joey King plays Aidan's pre-teen daughter, Grace, who is upset at leaving her Jewish school where she found comfort in faith. In one scene, Grace shaves her head, which King did for real on camera.
"That was a really scary experience for me but it was a growing experience for my career," the young actress said.
The film also features a small appearance by actor James Avery, who passed away in December. Braff said the actor, best known for playing Uncle Phil in long-running 1990s situation comedy "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," improvised the jokes for his scene.
"I'm glad that the last thing he did on film gets a giant laugh; I think he'd be happy about that," Braff said.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy)