A Useful Review: Away We Go, 2009, dir. Sam Mendes (DVD)

Sometimes, a movie comes into your life at the most opportune time possible.In my case, I’m taking my relationship with my girlfriend of the last five years to the next level– exactly a year from now, we’re getting married. I’m running high on elation at the notion of committing myself to someone I love and cherish so deeply; at the same time we both have to deal with the innumerable considerations that planning a wedding entails, and so it goes without saying that this is a busy, but exciting, time in our lives. Of course, in quieter moments we talk about our future and our life together after marriage, because inevitably we have to think about the steps that follow the wedding and the honeymoon, too. We’re moving forward with our relationship and still looking ahead at what’s coming up on the horizon.

Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) find themselves in a similar situation in Sam Mendes‘ film Away We Go, albeit their impetus for progressing their own relationship comes in the form of an unexpected bun in the oven. Upon learning the news, the couple decides to travel the country in order to discover the perfect location for raising their child together; what follows is a road movie unlike other such films, one that is sweet and romantic but cuts out the saccharine in favor of something more genuine and truthful.

A lot has been said by many critics about Burt and Verona in regards to their alleged snobbish superiority; just as much has been said in response to these criticisms, chief among them being the idea that if they act superior, it’s only because they’re truly superior. (What a concept!) Here we have a thoughtful pair of educated adults with good jobs who have found that even into their 30’s they just don’t have an appreciable reason to assume the mantle of adulthood (as is their privilege and their responsibility). They aren’t actively rebelling against that notion, they’re just waiting for the right reason to move on with their lives. It’s this attitude towards growing up that winds up making their story feel wholly refreshing, and bestows upon the couple a necessary empathy. It’s tough to face the idea of advancing toward the next phase of your life, certainly, and it’s very easy to relate to Burt and Verona as they confront and accept their own adulthood while simultaneously admiring their pluck and courage as they face their situation head-on.

Maybe to others, that aforementioned superiority is firmly rooted in the interactions that Burt and Verona have with other couples both before and during their jaunt around the country. An invitation to supper with Burt’s folks (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) actually provides the catalyst for the decision to move; the elder Farlanders announce that they are moving to Antwerp, a month before the baby is due in fact. They aren’t terrible people, but certainly they’re self-concerned, unacceptably so. Burt and Verona, it seems, stayed in Colorado to be near them (Verona’s parents are deceased). After the initial frustration with their selfish decision, the parents-to-be decide to start looking around other parts of the country; we meet foul and vulgar Lily, her subdued husband Lowell (Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan), and their near-catatonic kids in Arizona, new-age radical parents Ellen (spelled “LN”) and Roderick (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton) in Wisconsin (though I strongly suspect they come from another planet entirely), and happy-but-heartbroken couple Tom and Munch (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) in Montreal, who we learn have not successfully conceived a child of their own and instead have adopted their children.

Each couple provides less reassurance than the last; even Tom and Munch, who at least yield the appearance of being happy despite the obvious pain bubbling just under the surface of their relationship, present a discomforting pair, and the series of meetings lead Burt and Verona to question their ideas of love and family further as they search for a place to call home. They fear, at the film’s start, that they are screw-ups, and to them it seems parenthood represents some way to rectify the mistakes they perceive they’ve made– but their friends just represent the ways that they could really bungle their life together. The families they visit put up defenses against one another, or keep too many walls down; they try to suppress their own distress at their respective situations. Even Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider) is of little assistance to them, but what they see in the other parents they meet only galvanizes their resolve to raise their family as best as they can.

And that choice resonates universally; how many of us grow up and resolve to learn from the mistakes made during our own childhood? Ultimately, Burt’s and Verona’s journey is one of discovery as they come to understand what family really means to them, but it’s also a quest to be better parents than the other parents in their life– Burt’s mother and father, Lily and Lowell, LN and Rod. Our leading couple don’t want to end up as screw-ups– and they don’t want to end up like their friends and family. It’s a journey of self improvement as much as it’s a search for a place they can settle down in.

But more than that it’s a simple, tender movie about two people passionately in love moving into a new stage of their life, without artificial sweeteners mixed in to make the end product too unbearably candied. This is a rare treat in a day and age of over-wrought romantics that sugarcoat the difficult nature of maintaining a relationship and glaze over the struggles that couples tend to go through as their relationships develop and mature. Gentle, romantic, and full of heart, Away We Go is a stand-out relationship movie that succeeds on all levels; it’s often funny and even troubling, but it never loses sight of its good spirit. As to the accusations of smugness? Bull. Take away Burt and Verona’s specific trappings and traits and you have a story that’s very much about the average committed couple– and if that’s too above you, then the problem, quite frankly, likely does not lie with the movie.

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5 thoughts on “A Useful Review: Away We Go, 2009, dir. Sam Mendes (DVD)

  1. PHENOMENAL lead-in to your review. Your English major-iness is showing through, and I dig that!

    One of the things I enjoyed about “Away We Go” was the way it captured two characters who are, in a way, spokespeople for the current generation of disaffected 20somethings. It’s a weird age to begin with: You’re trying to separate jobs from careers, trying to find love or something like it, trying to decide if you want kids, the house, the car, the whole shebang. I think Mendes really gets that, and he captures it beautifully.

    M. Carter @ the Movies
    http://mcarteratthemovies.wordpress.com/

    • Thanks very much for the kind words!

      I completely agree with your point about the movie; it wanted to capture emotions and conditions that are relevant to people of my generation, but unlike most “twee” movies that attempt to do the same, AWAY WE GO does so by being utterly genuine instead of over-the-moon with how witty it is. It very much gets at the truth of its subject matter in an honest way; it actually speaks to its audience, instead of speaking at them, if you receive my meaning. It’s a hugely successful film for Mendes.

      *PS: I’ll be following your blog for certain, especially after reading the excellent Chinatown review.

  2. Pingback: Better Late Than Never: My Top 10 of 2009 « Andrew At The Cinema

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