Calling Sam Mendes’ Away We Go a pleasant surprise is the epitome of an understatement, namely because I walked into the film half expecting to hate it. Most of my predetermined ire came down to a handful of things. First, there was Mendes behind the camera, a director I’ve enjoyed only once (Road to Perdition (2002)), tolerated just as many times (Jarhead (2005)), and loathed on a couple of other occasions (American Beauty (1999) and Revolutionary Road (2008)). As if this weren’t enough, there was the fact that Dave Eggers co-wrote the script. Eggers is a writer whose fiction I’ve always felt to be painfully too clever and therefore never warmed up to. Then there were the early reviews of the film that painted it as smug and condescending.
So imagine my shock as I sat through Away We Go, just waiting for the film’s pompous, self-congratulatory back-patting to come alive, only for it never to happen. Sure, the film carries the theme of a disaffected, alienated America that the British Mendes so loves to trade in—and never really appears to understand—but Away We Go lacks that haughty air that makes American Beauty such a difficult film for me to watch. Instead I felt I was watching the anti-Mendes film, made—surprisingly—by Mendes himself. But even while Mendes’ name will get all the credit, it’s just as much Eggers’ and co-writer (and Eggers’ wife) Vendela Vida’s film of their worldview.
Still, what director and writers have made is nothing more than the generic indie comedy, with all the overused tropes we’ve come to expect. It’s a film peopled with scruffy, sweater-wearing middle-class types who live their lives to a quaint, subdued indie-rock soundtrack. Even the promotional material for the film is in the same vein, since its poster looks suspiciously like the one for Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007). While this may keep Away We Go from having its own identity, it nevertheless forces Mendes to strip down his style, meaning the plot is always more important than the panache.
The setup is of the quirky variety, with John Krasinski (Leatherheads) and Maya Rudolph (A Prairie Home Companion) playing Burt and Verona, a young couple with a child on the way. The two live in a ramshackle little house with a cardboard window that causes Verona—despite the fact that they both have steady jobs and appear to be genuinely in love—to worry that they’re both “f**k ups.” After finding out Burt’s parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Bridges) are leaving for Belgium a month before the child is due and with nothing tethering them to their current situation, Burt and Verona decide to trek across the continent, visit some old friends and hopefully find where they and their family belong in the world, both literally and figuratively.
The film moves episodically as the couple meets the movie’s occasionally oddball cast of characters, from the uncouth Lily (Allison Janney, Juno), the poster child for middle-American bad parenting, to LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a New Ager with a fondness for seahorse-parenting rituals and an aversion to strollers—and more.
The main criticism against the film appears to be borne out of the idea that since Burt and Verona are such sweet-natured people this means that Mendes, Eggers, Vida and their film are looking down on the rest of their peripheral characters, and since Burt and Verona have no “real” problems, why should we care to begin with? This rings false to me, since it appears to grow out of the same idea that art must be angsty and objectionable and never, ever pleasant. Figuring out where people fit in the U.S. has been a long-standing theme for Mendes, who’s never shied away from condescension, but for the first time he’s showing how people go about it like adults and not spoiled, maladjusted brats. It’s less a movie about ridicule (although it does raise the idea that maybe some of these people should be mocked) than one about figuring out how not to be ridiculed, while trying to be basically good.
The idea is surprising in and of itself that there’s a movie out there where the entire premise is figuring out how to do the right thing. Sure, it’s not the weightiest of prospects, and in the hands of the makers of this movie it shies a bit on the too-precious side. But it’s refreshing to find a movie where the main characters are in love (I have no clue if Eggers and Vida are this smitten with one another, but they certainly are out to convince the world that they are), are intelligent, kind to one another and the sort of people you wouldn’t mind being around, even for 98 minutes. Especially in multiplexes currently teeming with giant fighting robots. Rated R for language and some sexual content.