Wednesday 14 September 2011

Away We Go (2009)

Have you ever thought about how your parents found out that your mother was pregnant for the first time? Or how they reacted? Or how they spent those nine months before you, or your older sibling, arrived? It’s a colossal change in a couple’s life, or an individual’s if they’re going it alone. Almost every aspect of their lives change as the weight of responsibility, of you, grows and grows. And it won’t just be practical things like buying tiny clothes or fitting a lock on windows. They would have to completely re-evaluate their whole personality, try to figure out what kind of parents they were going to be once the kid has come along. They would likely also realise the need for a support system, a small group of people that could help in some way when needed. In 2009, Sam Mendes directed a road movie, written by husband and wife Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, about an expectant couple going through that very process.

Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are in their early 30s and expecting their first child. However, things are shaken up when Burt’s parents reveal they have decided to move to Belgium a month before the baby is due and are renting the house to someone else. The pair then decides to embark on a search for the right place to raise their baby. They go to every place they can think of that’s near family or friends, hoping they’ll find the perfect place to start their own family.

Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida are both novelists and, for those familiar with their work, you can feel the influence from each party on the script here. Eggers’ achieved a great amount of success with his book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a memoir recounting how he and his sister Beth had to raise their younger brother following the death of both of their parents. Already, there is the recognisable theme of familial support and the struggle to act as a parent when one may not feel mature enough to do so. Also, the fact that Verona’s parents both died when she was younger, and feels the need to be somewhat motherly to her sister is a clear parallel also. Vida herself holds a preoccupation with transition, change and coming-of-age, particularly in the case of women. Her works also often involve taking literal journeys as well as figurative ones. The fact that they are a smart, rather good-looking couple with kids of their own likely held no small influence either. As such, Away We Go would appear to be a good blend of their respective fascinations, as well as a rather intriguing treatise on the relationship of an expectant couple. This could almost be a companion piece to the very popular pregnancy book What to Expect When You’re Expecting, only this would be titled What's Expected of You When You’re Expecting.

Sam Mendes serves as director, and it serves as a very interesting change of pace for him. Before this, he had always held a very controlled and artistic hand over his films, with a penchant for material that was much darker in tone (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road). However, in Away We Go, Mendes has picked a much lighter film, and adopted a much looser style. He still maintains a subtle sense of artistry to the visuals (just watch the transition of Burt and Verona’s wardrobe in contrast to each other and their surroundings), and he still utilises the long shots that have served him so well in the past; but his camera is freer to move, the sense of light less stylised, and it all exudes a rather pleasing warmth. Clearly, he is as adept at reinventing his own style as he is doing so with others.

Krasinski and Rudolph make such a great couple. Part of their charm is that they don’t really look like a couple, and yet Burt and Verona are clearly in an easy kind of love, so they don’t have to force anything on each other. Verona even finds it a little odd that they don’t really fight, which does lead to some valiant, but completely half-hearted attempts by Burt to give her what she wants. What really makes the pair great is they don’t freak out about their impending child in the way that we see so often from other ‘baby on the way’ comedies. They don’t tie themselves in knots over how little they know about child rearing because they’ve already prepared themselves. Burt almost can’t wait to start, having already decided that he wants to be the kind of dad that can fix things and carve things out of wood, which he mistakenly thinks is called “cobbling”. Krasinski and Rudolph both give such natural and unaffected performances, exuding the easy-going charm and affection for each other that it’s really very difficult to not like them.

There are several other great performances. Allison Janney’s Lily is a loud, rather mean-spirited character, but seems to be completely unaware of it, and Janney pitches it perfectly. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton are superb as two hippie new-ager types, LN and Roderick, so self-righteous in their parenting ways that you just want to shout at them for pitching such complete bullshit as the appropriate and correct method of raising children. Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey are lovable, but rather heart-breaking as Tom and Munch, parents to a scatter of adopted kids and who seem so very happy with their lot, but come to show that a particular happiness will always be so regretfully beyond them. Paul Schneider is also on fine form as Burt’s uneasy brother Courtney, whose wife recently left and shook him to a nervous root. There’s also great work from Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels as Burt’s giddy, but very selfish parents, and from Carmen Ejogo as Verona’s sister. Really, there’s a fine performance in everyone you see.

Away We Go isn’t really a flawless picture, though. One of the biggest criticisms levelled against it is that Burt and Verona are smug, self-satisfied, a couple drenched in a particular arrogance. Another more specific point made is that, over the course of their journey, they learn nothing new about each other, and ultimately come to a conclusion that would perhaps have seemed obvious from the beginning, which is truer, but rather missing the point. Personally, I always thought it was a little odd that the best parental role models that Burt and Verona could find were Verona’s parents… and they’re dead. What exactly does that say?

On the point of the smugness of the pair, I’m not really sure I completely take to this, although I can certainly understand it. The people that they visit all represent different schools of thought on parenthood or family living, albeit in a fairly stereotypical manner. Lily is a crass and tactless woman, who thinks nothing of mocking her own family who stand only feet away. That she wants to “climb the social ladder” and is perhaps a little overly affectionate with Burt rather displays that she probably not the best influence to a young mother… or daughter… or son… or anyone, really. That she believes her kids don’t listen to her because that’s just what kids do, or that she takes absolutely no notice when her daughter openly talks to people that just pulled up in a van, really shows that she isn’t concerned with being a mother so much as looking for a distraction, a way out. LN and Roderick are equally off-putting as parental models because of their sanctimonious methods (strollers are bad) and complete lack of boundaries (LN admits to breast-feeding another woman’s child, and still breastfeeds her own beyond an age many would believe appropriate; and they hold a continuum home, so they share one giant bed with their children, even when they have sex). The critic of the New York Times, Tony Scott, wrote disparagingly about the film, saying: “this movie does not like you.” Frankly, if you have aligned yourself with either Lily or LN and Roderick, then you’re not my friend and I don’t want to talk to you.

Honestly, even if I did agree that they were smug, they kind of have a reason to be. They’re expecting a child and have reacted in a manner that you’d hope everyone would: they have prepared themselves by reading on what to expect along the pregnancy, but they’ve also given thought to what kind of parents they want to be. Burt wants to be the handy dad who can teach his kids how to do things, like tie knots or carve wood. Verona wants be able to fill her child’s life with happy memories, like her mother was for her. Considering how immature they consider themselves, they are reacting in a very mature way. They also want to make sure that they pick the right place to start their family, and cast a wide net in their search. If this kind of rather level-headed and unpretentious behaviour is to be regarded as smug, then I’d be only to happy to sign up to that.

Even then, this idea that the two are smugly self-satisfied rests at odds with their actions towards Tom and Munch. From the moment they arrive in Montreal, they are in love with the place, and they are still so close with their old school friends. However, after a confessional talk between Tom and Burt, as well as Verona’s own observations, they decide that they can’t settle here. This decision is made because Burt and Verona both silently agree that to move here to raise their child would be an unkind act towards their friends, who would perhaps forever look at them and see what they could never have. Despite believing that this would be a great place to stay, they move on so they don’t hurt their friends. That’s not an act of smug people; that’s a rather selfless one. And it’s this kind of selflessness that will make them good parents.

At the beginning of all of this, I asked whether or not you had ever considered what your parents experienced in the immediate nine months prior to you being born. I know I haven’t. Perhaps I’m in the rather selfish minority on this, which would be no great shock, but I certainly don’t believe I’m alone in that. Now, I could probably come up with some reasons as to why I’ve never considered how my parents were during the pregnancy. It’s not like I’ve never showed any kind of curiosity about them when they were younger, although I admit that it’s not been much. And the fact that I’m the younger of two siblings probably meant that some of the questions as to what kind of parents they were going to be had been answered one way or another. However, the fact remains that I have never really considered the precise implications of these huge life changes on either of my parents, and Away We Go at least gave something of a glimpse into what some of their thoughts may have been. What decisions did they make prior to the birth of either of their children? Did they become the kind of parents they wanted or expected to be? Did they worry a lot, or did they take things in their stride? How did it affect their relationship? You know how you always get the bit in birth scenes in comedies where the mother yells stuff like “You did this to me! I hate you! I never want you near me again!” at the father? Did my mother do that?

It’s a little odd to think of some of these things, but it’s most certainly something that they would have had to deal with. A lot of people seem to forget, or just fail to recognise, that your parents weren’t always your parents. Before you, they had a life with friends and hopes, and the arrival of you would have had an irrevocable change on that life. After finding out about you, they would have to endure physical and emotional shifts that would have been often very hard on them. If you’re lucky, your parents were able to rise to that challenge and did their best to raise a happy, healthy child. That’s not smugness; that’s decency.

Away We Go is a warm and charming film, filled with humour, great performances and nicely low-key aesthetic. Given some of the reaction to the film, you may end up finding the journey somewhat supercilious, but I can’t join you on that. I like Burt and Verona too much, and I don’t disagree with anything they say or do. I was with them from beginning to end and, if it weren’t for the fact that their not real, I’d wish them all the best.

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