Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Away We Go

Directed by Sam Mendes
written by David Eggers and Vendela Vida
starring (deep breath now): John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Josh Hamilton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Carmen Ejogo, Melanie Lynskey, Chris Messina and Paul Schneider (and exhale)

There is a moment during Away We Go, the fifth film by director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) where I leaned over to my friend and said "this isn't winning me over so far." It was very early on in the film. Less than ten minutes later, my defenses started to wear down and I was swept up in the utter beauty, not of this film (which is often beautiful) but of the main characters Burt and Verona (played with endearing earnestness and soft complexity by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, respectively). Their situation isn't always ideal, but their placement in relation to one another absolutely is, without a doubt. Should I want love, that's the kind of love I want. This film has been called many things, an indie-101 dramedy, a road-trip movie, a tired retread. It is, at its heart, a love story. That's what drives the film. That's what makes it work, and it does, rather spledidly, despite all of the things that beg it not to.

Verona and Burt are an unmarried thirty-something couple expecting their first child together. After Burt's parents (their only nearby relatives played by Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) announce plans to move to Antwerp, Belgium, the couple (at Verona's urging) decides to go on a journey all over North America looking for the perfect place to raise their family. The result is several different vignettes, titled "Away to Tuscon," and "Away to Montreal," etc. Burt is a space, yet intelligent man and is fiercely devoted to Verona. He wants their unborn daughter to have what he describes as a "Huck-finnish" upbringing. Verona loves Burt fiercely as well. But she is nervous about what kind of mother she will be, and nervous about their lack of roots. Her pregnancy has also brought on feelings of sadness about the death of her parents when she was in her early twenties. Verona refuses to marry Burt, but we never get the impression that it's because she doesn't love him. She says "I just don't see the point" and we believe her. A lesser film, or at least a more obvious one, would have made this a source of conflict between Verona and Burt. But both the director and the screenwriters know and love these characters too much to swim into those predictable waters.

On their journey, Verona and Burt encounter many different incarnations of the family. They see Verona's younger sister (Carmen Ejogo) unsure about an impending relationship, much like Verona herself. There is a couple in Montreal who has adopted several children of all ages in races (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey). An alcoholic woman in Tuscon who demeans her husband and children loudly and in public for her own amusement (Allison Janney), and a new age childhood family friend of Burt's named LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who refuses to put her children in strollers. Many people are dismissing this film as cheap, smug liberalism--the kind that advocates for different types of family, shameless shoving its liberal, NPR, McSweeney's values in your face (writers David Eggers and Vendela Vida write for McSweeney's). These are the same people who likely said the same thing about the multiculturalism in Rachel Getting Married--those who were distracted by it. It's a real shame, because in both cases, you miss what's great by focusing on said aspect. And it doesn't shove the values of these people down our throats as necessary or better than the typical nuclear family. For instance, LN is a college professor whose New Age attitude is wrapped in pretension, ignorance and racism. There is a moment when she says to Verona "Was it hard losing your parents? Your people have such a rich oral history." Before I worked in Candler Park--a liberal hippie enclave of Atlanta, Georgia, I would have said that LN was overwritten and that people like her don't exist. But her character rings very true to me, and I'm so glad that someone has finally addressed (maybe not finally) that white liberal racism may not be "worse" than white conservative racism, but it's certainly more obnoxious. Or what of the Montreal couple and their mixed race brood? Are they happy that they have created their own "United Colors of Benneton" family? Perhaps. Clearer is their devastation that they cannot conceive children of their own. Then there's Burt's brother (the always welcome Paul Schneider) who had the traditional nuclear family, and whose wife has just left him alone to raise their young daughter. It may seem simple and obvious, but the ultimate point is that none of these situations or families are ideal for anyone, especially Burt and Verona. For it isn't circumstance and surroundings that create family. It is only the people.

The cinematograpy here is top notch, never distracting as it takes on different landscapes and vistas of North America. Alexi Murdoch's music underscores the film perfectly, adding a warmth to it, much in the way that a great garnish caps off a great dish. The film isn't dependant on Murdoch's guitar and vocals to drive home the higher emotional points of the film, unlike other films that utilize music in this way.

I loved these performances. John Krasinski ups his game considerably, and you never doubt his enthusiasm or his devotion to his family. But the real best-in-show here is Maya Rudolph, whose subdued, understated performance may just be the film's saving grace. Pregnant women on film are sometimes difficult to handle. They are often written and directed as being too stereotypically pregnant, and their pregnancy serves as the first and foremost character trait. It's clear that Verona is written, directed and played as a flesh and blood woman first, pregnant second. And yet, Maya Rudolph handles it all with aplomb. If one pays attention, there are a lot of different character details that she has to hold on to, from the pregnancy, to the death of the parents, to her insecurities about her financial situation, to her fears about life with Burt. She never loses focus or consistency. A role like this could have been handled disastrously by a less imaginative actress, or a "louder" actress--one who isn't very skilled at the intricacies of internalized emotions. Rudolph knows exactly what she's doing here.

There are moments when I cried during this film. But they weren't cheap tears, and the characters weren't necessarily crying with me. A lot of the emotion this film evokes is richly earned and never feels cheap. That is a rarity.

Grade: B

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