Burt and Verona are thirty-somethings, good friends as well as lovers, and will be parents for the first time three months hence. Verona’s parents are both dead, and Burt’s have announced that they’re leaving the country to live abroad for two years. With no real reason to stay near them in their cold house, Burt and Verona decide to look for a better place in which to raise their child. They choose to visit friends and family in different parts of the country to get a better idea. Phoenix, Tucson, Montreal and Miami are circled, and the bags are packed.
Director Sam Mendes has been interested in families for some time. His American Beauty concerned a father in the middle of a personal crisis, Road to Perdition saw two fathers protecting their sons, and of course Revolutionary Road told the story of the typical all-American family in the 1950s struggling to get by. Here, he’s extended that interest to show the effect that impending parenthood has to people. Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and a very good Maya Rudolph) are good people; he’s a typical man-child with permanently mussed hair, she is the product of a mixed-race marriage who has developed that American trait of over-analyzing. Burt, in particular, is excited about the baby’s arrival and takes up whittling because he believes that that is what good fathers do.
Away We Go is a curious movie. With a big-name director one might expect a lavish production but instead we get a discreet, indie-style road movie complete with acoustic soundtrack music reminiscent of Juno and the ilk. The couple is instantly likeable and the first half of the movie is an absolute delight as we pass from city to city, meeting horrendous caricatures along the way. In Phoenix, for example, we meet an uncaring mother (Alison Janney) who would rather grip a glass of gin than her kids’ hands. In Tucson we go to the other end of the spectrum to meet a pair of those Real Earth-style parents (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton), the type who won’t use strollers because they think it gives the child the impression that they’re being pushed away. It’s a quirky delight.
The first half of the movie sucks us in with grace and humor, and more than a little whimsy. We can see, even if perhaps Verona cannot, that the couple will be good parents; not so much in their dismissal of the Arizonans (anyone in their right minds would do that) but in the way they care and in the way they act with each other. If they love their baby even half as much as they love each other, I have the feeling it will all work out just fine. The second half, however, adopts a more serious tone. In Montreal they meet up with old college friends of theirs who would appear to have the perfect family. The couple gives Burt and Verona advice on family life. “Being a parent,” muses one, “you have to be so much better than you ever thought.” As a proud father myself, I can relate to that statement.
A fourth destination, Miami, sees Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider) distraught after his wife upped and walked out, leaving him to look after his little girl alone. He shows Burt the girl’s school photo. “What’s that on her upper lip?” asks Burt. The brother studies it, tells him that it’s carrot juice, and then says that he hadn’t noticed it was there. In an emotional speech he remonstrates, “Mothers see carrot juice on their daughters. They can see if their hair isn’t brushed or if they don’t have the cool new backpack.” There was resonance for me in that statement of fact, also.
Away We Go is the kind of movie you would expect a first time writer/director to have made, on a small budget. If it were, I have the feeling that it would have been lauded more on its release. Don’t overlook it, however. There’s a warmth to it that will make you smile, and just enough quirkiness to make it stand out. I’ll leave you with the following incidental scene. The pair are waiting in a hotel lobby and see a mother approach with her young sevenish-year old son. “What’s that?” asks the mother.
“A cactus,” he replies.
“Very good! And what’s that?”
“A fern” and so on.
The mother is clearly delighted at showing off her child’s cleverness to onlookers — a habit I share, incidentally — so then points at Verona’s tummy. “What’s that?” she asks again.
“A baby,” he replies.
“Brilliant! And tell the nice people what you know about babies.”
The son looks at them and, in his Sunday-best voice, says, “Babies like to breathe, and they’re good at hiding it. I put a pillow over a baby. I thought she wasn’t breathing, but she was. She was sneaky, but I’ll try again.”
Kids. They say the darnedest things.