Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. Since December sees the release of Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917, we’re looking back at the London theater director-turned-filmmaker’s eclectic works. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Part travelogue and part meditation on parenthood, Away We Go gets off on the wrong foot. Adorkable dialogue, an acoustic guitar soundtrack, all too precious presentation—its early portion is filled with the sort of a that would let you mistake it for any other 2000s indie quirkfest. It’s the sort of mix that characterizes a particular subgenre of paint-by-numbers dramedies unleashed in the wake of Garden State. Worse yet, it starts off as an example of broad comedy stuffed into naturalistic packaging, often with a dose of Thinking About Important Things.
Maya Rudolph, almost a decade before her turn as The Judge on The Good Place, stars as Verona, a six-months-pregnant woman wondering what adulthood should be. Opposite her is John Krasinski (years into his role as Jim on The Office) as Burt, her longtime, married-in-all-but-name boyfriend who’s facing similar questions. When his parents suddenly announce they’re moving to Belgium, the couple realizes they have no attachment to their hometown du jour. Burt’s family was the pair’s local support system, and now without them, Verona and he decide to travel the country, trying different locales to see which life fits them best.
Despite that sturdy setup, what follows is more a series of extended sketches than a propulsive narrative. Whether it’s the grandparents-to-be, an old boss, an erstwhile cousin, or a pair of buddies from college, Burt and Verona dot the map with wacky encounters among extended friends and family. At least the cast populating these interludes is stacked: Catherine O’Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and more pop up for a scene or two, all to rustle up a few yuks. That is, before our protagonists depart for (hopefully) greener pastures.
That doesn’t stop the humor from being weak broth, though. Away We Go’s comic sensibility is an awkward marriage of sitcom-y gags and the more down-to-earth affect that any aughts movie needed in order to maintain indie cred, and that approach gives every comic moment a fingers-crossed quality. Worse yet, these scenes struggle to endear audiences to Verona and Burt. The film mainly leaves them as ciphers or straight men for broader characters to play off and even when it breaks from that trend, the couple’s scenes lean into cutesy, irksome exchanges that don’t cross the “quirky but relatable” threshold Eggers and Vida aim for.
Then there’s the inherent tension between the film’s plot and themes. The audience is supposed to view Verona and Burt as self-described “fuck-ups” who don’t know how to be grown-ups. And yet, the couple nevertheless seems to have the wherewithal to jet from city to city at a moment’s notice, traipsing through a number of picturesque settings without a hint of worry.
[… A]bout halfway through, Sam Mendes’s dramedy transforms itself from contrived to earnest in its depiction of the anxieties that come with bringing new life into the world.
These sequences still have the benefit of Sam Mendes’s eye and Ellen Kuras’s cinematography, though. From using angled glass to a passing airplane the sense of diving above and below the shoreline to the simple act of one person walking to another in an orange grove, Mendes and Kuras capture the beauty, sense of restlessness, and even certain holiness in each place our protagonists set foot.
And yet, in the back half of the film, that beauty is put in service of a larger, more genuine set of thoughts that elevates Mendes’s larger project. He and his team structure much of Away We Go like A Christmas Carol for soon-to-be-parents, each new destination and family Verona and Burt meet representing a glimpse of their possible futures or conjuring the ghosts of their past. But at the halfway mark, the overarching theme of those visits changes from “Jeez, I hope we don’t end up like those people” to a more sobering “This could really be us someday, and that’s scary.”
Loopy visits with a crass, bickering couple give way to time shared with a seemingly perfect family quietly hiding a deep well of pain. A hacky riff on hippie parenting is replaced with a legitimate fear for how this challenge could prove too much for Verona or Burt and irrevocably change the course of their daughter’s life. The wacky “Who knows which crazy little ecosystem could be our new home?” setup settles into a more honest interrogation. What prevents people from putting down roots? What truly makes a place feel like home? Why?
The transition gives Rudolph and Krasinski the chance to dispense from only reacting to other characters’ lunacy or straining to do the Quirk-tacular Young Couple Routine, and start playing Verona and Burt like real people. Both performers have the chance to do the showpiece, character-defining monologues that are legally mandated for this sort of film, and they each knock it out of the park. (Chris Messina, furthermore, delivers a humdinger of a speech that all but announces the film’s credible shift in tone and focus in his supporting role.)
Burt spills his anxieties about his girlfriend’s resistance to marriage and what it could mean for his and their daughter’s future. Verona exercises her demons about the loss of her parents at the cusp of her own adulthood, a loss that’s contributed to the current rootlessness she and her boyfriend are grappling with. Those monologues center on different flavors of the same fear of abandonment and the funhouse mirror images of these fears in friends and family let Verona and Burt uncover what kind of life they want to have together, and what kind of home they want to make for themselves and their daughter.
That’s the laudable foundation that supports the best parts of Away We Go—two people, flawed but recognizable, working through the sorts of issues every future parent deals with, acknowledging the untold challenges but finding their path forward and back. The opening gamut of comic throat-clearing belies the deeper feeling that Mendes infuses into the film once it sheds the late-aughts indie trappings. The result embraces something timeless, poignant, and true.