Truth be told, Away We Go was badly marketed. Heck, it still is. The hand-drawn, earthy poster art immediately links it with the wave of polished, ‘mainstream indie’ flicks that have been foisted on the cinema-going audience over the last ten years – the likes of Juno, Sideways, and Little Miss Sunshine – in the process evoking the cynicism, irony and quirkiness that has, in some quarters, become that style’s millstone.
While it’s true that Away We Go is written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, both prominent figures in the young (or not so young, nowadays) American intellectual-literati scene (and editors of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and The Believer respectively), the film is certainly not arch, pompous or smug. In fact, it is a work of tender, genuine charms.
Thirtysomething Americans Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski) are expecting their first child. Anticipating this major shift in their life and relationship, they start a modest expedition: to travel around North America to find a suitable place to settle down for their soon-to-be cemented family.
Along the way, they meet old friends, relatives and co-workers who have spread throughout the continent, visiting Phoenix, Montreal and Florida in a gently undulating chapter-like structure.
This narrative device is, immediately, used to present the viewer (and the protagonists) with a number of different settings, modes and variations on the institutions of parenthood and family, as Verona and Burt encounter characters that exist within the full span between well-observed creations and overly kooky caricatures.
Their first port of call is the house of Burt’s parents (played with unhinged glee by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels), who ecstatically inform the couple that they will be moving to Belgium for two years, missing out on the birth and toddling period of their grandchild in favour of a middle-aged fling.
As the film progresses, it is revealed that, despite a set of brilliant turns from the cast, these settings, and the structure as a whole, are merely working towards an intricate, finely nuanced depiction of the central relationship. It is all an excuse to spend time with the characters, who are warm and likeable.
It helps that the roles are filled extremely well by Krasinski and Rudolph, but the portrayals are given a firm foundation by Eggers and Vida, who craft the script around the couple’s little anecdotes, exchanges, and playful banter, honing in on plenty of pillow talk and co-existence that cultivates an organic on-screen presence.
Krasinski in particular, freed from the confines of The Office, is a delight, as he awkwardly (but enthusiastically) takes up the mantle of dad-to-be, whittling wood and, if necessary, jumping out screaming from under an aeroplane seat, in order to push the baby’s heart rate above the average, healthy threshold.
In response, Rudolph is more serene, but while her little smiles and twinkles at her partner’s antics are priceless, there is a complex network of issues and problems under that beautiful surface – of unresolved childhood trauma, reflected in the fact that, despite frequent proposals, the two aren’t married.
This subtle complexity gives Away We Go a gentle resonance. The couple’s odyssey ends with them just as cautious and uncertain as they started, teetering on the precipice of a new era of their lives, while the ideological constructs of family and marriage have been cuttingly, yet gracefully dismantled.
However, it shies away from great answers or titanic conflict, or even grand, expressive stylishness, seen in Sam Mendes’ tactfully understated direction, which cannily focuses more on performance and character-building than in his earlier wide-screen, visionary works. It results in a film that is small in scale, but powerful in its emotional involvement.
The only hefty extra is a commentary track, featuring Mendes, Vida and Eggers cooking up some great chemistry while they talk about the film in great depth and with great humour. Otherwise, there are two mildly diverting, if not incredibly informative mini-featurettes.
‘The Making of Away We Go’ (16 mins) is a mash-up of on-set footage and interviews with cast and crew (Eggers and Vida are, sadly, absent), sharing anecdotes about the production, and ‘Green Filmmaking and Away We Go’ (6 mins) concerns the efforts to keep the shoot environmentally friendly in collaboration with Earthmark and Green Media Solutions.
Away We Gois out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.