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Away We Go     

Posted by Katherine Putnam on March 24th, 2012

“I really hate that attitude, you know? ‘Everything’s already broken so why don’t we just keep on breaking it again and again?'”

I always find movies like Away We Go hard to describe. I tend to call movies like this a “slice of life” movie. I use this phrase because watching films like Away We Go feels more like peeking into someone’s life for a period of time instead of watching a story. If you’ll allow me to show my inner dweeb, I’ll say it’s what I imagine looking into a Pensieve would feel. Our lives do not follow a strict plot, nor can our experiences fit neatly onto a graph of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. That’s not to say that there isn’t a plot to this movie; it’s just that the plot feels closer to a glimpse of someone’s life than most (overly?) plotted movies do.

Does that make sense? I hope so.

“It’s all those good things you have in you. The love, the wisdom, the generosity, the selflessness, the patience. The patience! At 3 A.M. when everyone’s awake because Ibrahim is sick and he can’t find the bathroom and he’s just puked all over Katki’s bed. When you blink, when you blink! And it’s 5:30 and it’s time to get up again and you know you’re going to be tired all day, all week, all your life…And you have to be willing to make the family out of whatever you have.”

“She had another miscarriage…This is her fifth. I know she loves all those kids like, like they were her own blood. But, I wonder if we’ve been selfish. People like us we wait till our thirties and then we’re surprised when the babies aren’t so easy to make anymore and then every day another million fourteen year olds get pregnant without trying. It’s a terrible feeling, this helpless, man. You just watch these babies grow and then fade. You don’t know if you’re supposed to name them, or bury them, or… I’m sorry.”

Sam Mendes’ 2009 film, Away We Go, follows expecting parents Burt (The Office‘s John Krasinski) and Verona (SNL‘s Maya Rudolph) as they search for the perfect place to raise their baby. Their search begins when Burt’s parents announce that they plan to move to Belgium before the baby is born. Since the only reason Burt and Verona stayed in their current home was to be near grandparents (Verona’s parents died during her college years), they take his parent’s selfish announcement as a catalyst to visit friends and family in an effort to find a new place to call home.

What follows is an–at times–awkward, hilarious, frustrating, and heartbreaking journey that I found well paced, well drawn, and superbly acted.

On this latest viewing I found the journey to be less about Burt and Verona’s attempt to find the right physical location and more about their attempts to figure out what kind of parents they want to be. With Verona’s parents deceased and Burt’s parents more interested in taking a two year detour to Belgium than their family, the couple seems not desperate, but anxious to find another couple to serve as mentors and a support system. Their journey includes time spent with four main families (minus a detour or two to visit Verona’s sister and for Burt to attend an interview):

  • Lily and Lowell (played by Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan), an obnoxious couple more concerned with getting into the right country club and judging their children based on physical stereotypes than with truly loving and nurturing their children.

  • LN (pronounced the same as Ellen) and Roderick (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton), a pair of overly earnest, lamentably judgmental hippies who have forever ruined my ability to look at a seahorse or a stroller (“I love my babies, why would I want to PUSH them away from me?”) without laughing.

  • Tom and “Munch” (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey), college friends of the protagonists who struggle to find the balance between loving their adopted children and dealing with the heartbreak of finding themselves unable to have a child of their own.

  • Courtney (Paul Schneider), Burt’s brother, who finds himself at a loss when faced with the task of raising a preteen daughter alone after his wife abruptly abandons the family.

    Although the film seems divided into two sections, disfunction (Lily and Lowell, LN and Roderick) and heartache (Tom and Munch, Courtney), I liked that the film never tried to present the “perfect parents.” With every parent displayed you could find both positive and negative aspects (I’ll admit I’m not sure I’ve found the positive with Lily and Lowell, but I’ll keep trying) of their character. And when I say “you” can find these aspects, I really mean that you can. The movie does not do it for you. Now, this doesn’t mean that the story is without bias; it clearly has a bias in favor of the last two families and against the first two (three, if you count Burt’s parents). However, years of studying fiction taught me that you have to make your own judgments of characters and situations; no narrator is perfect (whether the narrator is a character or a filmmaker) and so it is up to you to decide if that narrator is reliable, honest, or correct in their assumptions.

    I mention the issue of unreliable narrators to lay the groundwork for my response to a New York Times review of Away We Go. Before I even begin to address the content and argument of the review, I have to say I found the writer’s tone unbearably snotty, rude, haughty, and judgmental. This is particularly funny to me, since the reviewer claims that Burt and Verona are self-righteous people “aware of their special status as uniquely sensitive, caring, smart and cool beings on a planet full of cretins and failures.” The reviewer claims the film (through Burt and Verona) is unfairly critical of the other characters in the story, while placing the protagonists in a special bubble of critical immunity.

    I disagree. True, we see the other characters through Burt and Verona’s eyes. As viewers we tend to identify with and empathize with the protagonist or main character first, only identifying with others after we have determined a reason for breaking with the narrating character. Although films have the ability to blur third and first person narration due to the camera’s position as co-narrator, we still have to decide whether the narrator is one hundred percent reliable or not. In most cases the narrator is not infallible. No character is perfect; Burt and Verona are not perfect. They do experience periods of doubt. They worry that they are screw ups, that they don’t have it all together, and that they won’t be able to properly raise and nurture their child. Perhaps they do judge the other characters (LN or Lily, for example) harshly or negatively at times, but they also show great capacity for empathy when confronted with Munch’s deep sadness over the miscarriage of yet another baby or Courtney’s bewilderment and fear after being abandoned to raise his daughter alone. Not to mention that other characters are clearly shown judging them right back (LN and Roderick’s condescending disdain for Burt and Verona’s lack of enlightenment is quite clear and comical).

    Burt and Verona aren’t perfect, but I love their imperfection. I love that they seem to be trying (whether or not they succeed is not the point of the movie, that’s a part of the story we don’t get to see). For the sake of fairness, I’ll admit that the Times reviewer was right to point out some of the indie tropes of the film: a distracting self-awareness, the tendency to over-romanticize quirks, etc. However, I think they were wrong to suggest that we’re to walk away from the film with a sense that Burt and Verona are perfect. They fall victim to juvenile mindsets: clinging, perhaps as a way to cope with the imperfection all around them, to the belief that no one else is in love quite like they are. Burt is shown to be a bit absent minded, naive, and perhaps immature. Verona appears to be defensive, easily irritated, and closed off (even with Burt); she also very clearly carries scars from the death of her parents. We are sharing the journey of two flawed people. What I take away from the film is the sense that we should all try, as we see Burt and Verona try, to learn from both the mistakes we’ve made and the mistakes we observe others make. “Flimsy premise” or not, the film is clearly less about the specific events and more about the overall journey: what happens matters less than how it shapes us, how we grow or change in response.

    What I found particularly repugnant about the New York Time’s review was the reviewer’s crass and, frankly, shamefully inaccurate summary of Munch and Tom’s dilemma. In the midst of describing the movie’s motif of “maternal instincts gone awry,” the reviewer boxes up Munch’s character by describing her as a mother “whose adopted brood can’t compensate for her inability to bear children.” Munch’s sorrow over the loss of her fifth baby was one of the most poignant, heartbreaking moments of the film for me. (I especially enjoyed the way her emotional turmoil was both expressed by and juxtaposed against the setting, but I shan’t spoil how.) In that scene I definitely felt at one with the protagonists: lost and completely unable to imagine anything I (or anyone) could do to comfort someone in Munch’s situation. What angers me about the reviewer’s blithe summary is the way it both ignores what Munch and Tom have shared about their struggle to be good parents to their adopted children (see the quote above the film poster, the one that starts “It’s all those good things you have in you”) and trivializes the loss the couple has suffered. Their grief has nothing to do with their adopted children not being enough, or not being worth as much as their own (potential) flesh and blood offspring; their grief has everything to do with that “terrible feeling” that comes with the pain of watching “these babies grow and then fade.” I cannot fathom that loss. As a woman who has not yet had children I’m completely incapable of imagining what I would feel knowing there was life growing inside me, let alone what I would feel if that life inexplicably ended (over and over again). Perhaps it is sexist, but I assume the reviewer must be a single man.

    Though I’ll admit the characters and the film have their flaws (who and what doesn’t?), I found the film charming. I especially enjoyed facing those imperfections and finding within them an opportunity for personal growth; furthermore, I found that my process of questioning and judging the reliability of the narrative reflected the process displayed by the main characters. But hey, maybe I’m just a sucker for indie “slice of life” comedies and John Krasinski. (There’s just no escaping it, I’ll never be able to see him without associating him with Jim Halpert.)

    Whatever the case, I encourage you to give the film a try. Go into it with an open mind and a willingness to both confront and accept imperfection.

    NEXT TIME: A two for one deal: Batman Begins AND its sequel, The Dark Knight.

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