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Road to Parturition

Away We Go (2009)

François Duhamel/Focus Features

“Away We Go,” which Sam Mendes shot while in post-production on “Revolutionary Road,” is the first movie he’s made that openly engages with the vagaries of contemporary life. It’s not a hyper-stylized, heightened museum piece like its predecessor or a whip-smart satire like “American Beauty,” but a film straight from the heart of screenwriters and acclaimed authors Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The movie palpably evokes the feelings, concerns and challenges confronting parents and homeowners seeking to live out the American dream in the 21st century.

On its own, the casting of John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph respectively as Burt and Verona, the central couple, announces the director’s move away from filmmaking orthodoxy. As the picture begins the tandem simultaneously learns of Verona’s pregnancy and the intention of Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) to abandon their nearby Colorado home for life in Belgium. The two bombshells spur an extended quest on their part to find the right place to buy a home and raise their child. The journey takes them from Phoenix to Montréal, at each place encountering – in their friends with children – various hypothetical permutations of the future.

The screenplay adopts an episodic structure that it imbues with a consistent emotional arc. Although Burt and Verona encounter a rotating cast of oddball characters on their voyage of self-discovery, the focus never diverts from their relationship, which strengthens during their crash course in the foibles and rewards of parenthood. To see domestic partners so devoted that they never question their commitment to building a life together – even as they navigate their way through a series of warnings against doing so – is to be reminded of the strength of deep-rooted, elemental love and its ability to withstand the most significant of tests.

Their deeply-felt bond resonates in large part because they are painstakingly depicted as everyday figures, with recognizable flaws. The characters are not glamorized or excessively pitied; Mr. Krasinski and Ms. Rudolph never seem like movie stars “dressing down” as normal people. The screenplay grants them levels of dignity often denied onscreen 30somethings who have yet to accomplish anything of significance; and their sharp contrast to the wild types they encounter only further enables audience identification. They’re presented so convincingly and with such a lack of embellishment that their concerns, manifested in the ways Burt adopts a false macho veneer as he tries to get ahead as a salesman or Verona worries that they’re rapidly running out of time to positively impact the world, inspire significant inner reflection.

The film enhances the grounded story at its core with scenes of surrealistic, borderline slapstick humor and high drama. Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal particularly seem to relish the opportunity to play monstrously overbearing mothers, the former having stopped bothering to censor herself in front of her children and the latter buying too heavily into the new-agey parenting techniques promulgated by lots of so-called experts. An undercurrent of sadness permeates as well, as entrenched painful feelings surge forth from all the couples Burt and Verona encounter, even the pair that appears to live the happiest and most fulfilling life. The whimsical travelogue spirit of the early scenes, as Burt and Verona whisk from one richly photographed scenic locale to the next, gives way to the darker sensibility that characterizes the film’s final third. A trip to Miami marks the culmination of their exploratory sojourn down the path of others’ unmet expectations and unrequited heartbreak.

Throughout it all, director of photography Ellen Kuras presents a lush, varied color scheme that lends each location its own particular feel, while perfectly timed close-ups set Mr. Krasinski and Ms. Rudolph apart from the ever-changing backgrounds. As such, their search for the perfect home remains their story and their gradual awakening to the fact that where you live matters less than whom you’re there with becomes an ideal, hopeful narrative for the confused times in which we live.

Away We Go

Opens on June 5 in New York and on Sept. 18 in Britain.

Directed by Sam Mendes; written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida; director of photography, Ellen Kuras; edited by Sarah Flack; music by Alexi Murdoch; production designer, Jess Gonchor; produced by Edward Saxon, Marc Turtletaub and Peter Saraf; released by Focus Features. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: John Krasinski (Burt), Maya Rudolph (Verona), Jeff Daniels (Jerry), Carmen Ejogo (Grace), Jim Gaffigan (Lowell), Maggie Gyllenhaal (L N), Josh Hamilton (Roderick), Allison Janney (Lily), Melanie Lynskey (Munch), Chris Messina (Tom), Catherine O’Hara (Gloria) and Paul Schneider (Courtney).


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