Monday, June 1, 2009

Review of Away We Go

The review appeared in the June issue of ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

If anything can be gained by this movie, it's that Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of the best actresses working today.


The summer movie season is so large, so driven by familiarity and profit, that it can be hard for character-driven movies that don't have cross promotions with fast food giants and soft drink behemoths to find a foothold. Ironically, those movies, like Sam Mendes' Away We Go, are the breath of fresh air that's needed during three months of sequels and TV adaptations. Away We Go is more than an alternative to Terminator Salvation, but a touching portrait of a young couple grappling with a fast-approaching future. It can be enjoyed any season.

Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) are in their early thirties, walking a fine line between stagnation and lifelong disappointment. They live in a crappy house that looks like it was furnished by repeated trips to the flea market. She's six months' pregnant, but has no desire to marry despite Burt's urging. His parents (the peerless combo of Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels)--and their sole means of support and security--have gleefully decided to move to Antwerp, grandchildren be damned.

Verona's parents are dead, so the kids are on their own, and they're not remotely ready for that. But it allows them to search for a new home and a new support system. So, they hit the road, hoping to find a point of stability, an example to aspire to. It doesn't go too well. Trips to see Verona's ex-boss (Allison Janney) in Arizona and Burt's family friend (Maggie Gyllenhaal, awesome as usual) in Wisconsin show the perils of being on either end of the parenting intensity spectrum. College friends in Montreal (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) have built a happy family of adorable adopted kids, but it lies on a foundation of repeated sadness. A sudden trip to visit Burt's brother (Paul Schneider) in Miami offers a glimpse of what awaits a child if a parent leaves. To quote legendary screenwriter William Goldman, nobody knows anything.

Obviously, this is more than a road trip for Burt and Verona, but a way to find their adult selves. The husband and wife writing team of Dave Eggers (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and Vendela Vida (novelist, co-editor of The Believer magazine) never announce life lessons. Instead, they come about naturally in quiet, thoughtful moments, like Schneider mentioning how there are certain things a father can't do for his child. When Verona mentions to Burt that they need to argue more, we're reminded how little the movie grandstands. The only time Away We Go gets loud is when it's funny--witness the parenting attempts of Janney and Gyllenhaal's characters. The former barely acknowledges her kids' existence, an ideal path for intense therapy, while the latter raises her kids based on some unholy combination of liberal arts and metaphysics.

In the lead roles, Krasinski and Rudolph follow the writers' leads, taking baby steps toward adulthood, eventually learning to go their own way. Their performances are quiet, but powerful, perfectly matching the movie's tone. Life revelations don't come about in flashes, but after years of trial and error. Krasinski and Rudolph carry that unwritten history with them in every scene, and watching them adjust to that weight is both funny and heartfelt.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Away We Go is how intimate it feels, considering Mendes's showy tendencies (behold the endless screaming-as-satire of Revolutionary Road) and the aura of hip whirling around Vida and Eggers. The cast consists of independent film standouts or other pop culture darlings (Krasinski of The Office, ace comedian Jim Gaffigan). I was afraid that Away We Go would be the type of emotionally pumped-up drama that's the blockbuster of the art house circuit. It's not. Burt and Verona's trip may be transparent in its importance, but it's introspective, human, and always authentic. Sometimes it's a good idea to examine the small stuff behind the big moments, and Away We Go is a nice reminder of what can result from that underused philosophy. [R]

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