After the bitterness and cynicism that marked American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, director Sam Mendes has changed pace to make a film of relentless hope and optimism with Away We Go. It's a sharp turn for the director, especially when one considers that the material covers familiar ground; as he did with Beauty and Road, Mendes is again examining the meaning of family and parenting in America.
But his writers this time are married novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, who conceived the project during their first pregnancy as a response to the fear and anticipation of new parenthood, and the film clearly reflects that mixed bag of hope and dread. It's emotionally free-flowing, by turns warm and funny and sad, and it makes Mendes's previous projects, by comparison, seem almost lifeless in their surgical precision.
The heroes of the film, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), are unmarried thirtysomethings who neatly embody the "30 is the new 20" Gen-Y ideal. They're still getting their shit together; vague elements of a previously bohemian existence are alluded to, though Burt is now attempting to integrate himself into a middle class respectability by selling insurance.
"Are we fuck-ups?" a six months-pregnant Verona asks Burt.
"No, we're not fuck-ups."
"I think we might be fuck-ups. We have a cardboard window."
Pregnancy is the natural catalyst for the couple to finally settle down. When Burt's parents announce that they're moving to Belgium, the parents-to-be decide to travel across the country in search of the perfect home.
The subsequent "what to expect" odyssey exposes Burt and Verona to a myriad of families and parenting methods. As they suss out their own feelings and opinions on child-rearing and marriage, they cross paths with parents and couples who represent different obstacles, schools of thought and possible directions for Burt and Verona.
The film also functions as a coming out party for Krasinski and Rudolph. The two comic actors have long shown they have talent to spare (Krasinski on The Office and Rudolph on SNL), but Away We Go is the first project to indicate that they both possess some serious dramatic chops. Rudolph in particular is a find, and I'd put money on her receiving a well-deserved Oscar nomination at the end of the year.
Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Chris Messina, Maggie Gyllenhall and Paul Schneider all have memorable roles as philosophic mirrors for Burt and Verona; Messina and Schneider in particular are both heartbreaking. Messina, as an old college friend whose wife has miscarried repeatedly, articulates the price of waiting to grow up. "We all wait around 'til our mid-thirties to start having kids and then we're surprised when it's no so easy anymore. Meanwhile, at any given moment, a million fourteen-year olds are getting pregnant without even trying." On the other end, Schneider, as Burt's brother, embodies the fear of desertion. His wife has left him to raise a daughter on his own, and he delivers a monologue highlighting the reasons why a girl needs her mother that is one of the film's high points.
Focus Features has done us all a favor by releasing Away We Go during the summer. It's a nice change of pace from the noisiness of the multiplex, but it's also a movie that should be remembered for end-of-the-year recognition. It's quiet and low-key, and may be easy to neglect, but it deserves critical success and a captive audience.
It's as close to a perfect film as we're likely to see this year.
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