Did you ever have to make up your mind? Both Away We Go and Juno are about those decisions that come from life that can’t be fudged, postponed or ignored. Even though both films involve pregnant leads who aren’t married to the fathers of their unborn, there’s more here than childbirth. Each film lets us see a big life question presented in a way that shows there isn’t always a “right” answer. Sometimes life forces us to choose. To pick up on one and leave the other behind. Well, we have to choose now, too. Should we go with the the couple of thirty-somethings who have to decide where to make their stand with a new baby; or the teenage girl who has a “go-no go” decision to make about a baby of her own and the boyfriend who’s in way over his head?
Away We Go comes from the same director who gave us American Beauty, Sam Mendes. The common thread in his work between these two films is the sharply drawn characters he finds living in an America he doesn’t seem to like all that much. Written by the married couple of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, it tells the story of Burt and Verona — who aren’t married and are muddling through their lives knowing the clock is ticking, not biologically, but socially. Depending on who you talk to they’re either nice or narcissistic, but either way they feel like their peers are getting along better than they are, they know something’s wrong and they still haven’t quite grasped what to do about it. When Burt’s parents (Verona’s are deceased) announce that they are moving to Belgium and, thus, won’t be around to see their grandchild born, the young couple decides to hit the road, looking for a place that will have the right vibe to start their family (and, hopefully, their new & improved lives). Then it’s planes, trains and automobiles as the story bounces from Arizona to Wisconsin to Florida and finally lands in what, for them, is supposed to be the land of Hope. Along the journey, they run into a lot of parenting advice and all kinds of disappointing people.
The Defending Champion
Juno, as we all know now, was the indie darling of 2007. If you check, I think the “Top Critics” over at Rotten Tomatoes thought it was 100% fresh. On the other hand, the critics were nearly in agreement recently that Transformers 2 should be shunned, a solidarity that apparently had little impact on the box office. The film comes to us as the debut script of Diablo Cody and the growing skill of director Jason Reitman. Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) steals the show as an original creation — on one level she is the cliche sassy and bright teenager, but there’s a depth to her added by her vulnerability that she also knows a lot less about how the world hangs together than she thinks she does. When she gets pregnant by Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), the answer is not simple. She doesn’t really love him, the sex was like an art project or something. But here’s a movie that the rest of America should applaud Hollywood for making. She entertains an abortion but rejects it. Against all the social odds, she’s going to have the child. It isn’t easy, and we live with the consequences of her decision as she does. The film in inhabited by characters who fumble along, zigging and zagging, and showing off their magnificent imperfection.
There is a central flaw in one of these films that absolutely tubes its chances to win this Smackdown. More on that in a moment.
Tonally, neither film is a full-on comedy or a full-on drama. They exist in that netherworld of heightened reality where life feels normal except the characters are a little better at the quick comebacks and the jokes they make don’t fall flat like the ones most of us try.
Neither of our leading ladies is ready to marry either of our leading men in these films. But Verona’s refusal never makes sense at all and I’m trying to say this as someone who acknowledges that not everybody needs to get married, even people who are having children together. But this character seems like she should get married to Burt but she refuses. In Juno, Juno isn’t going to have the baby or get married but she shouldn’t, not now. But the sweet friendship that ends the picture tells me that someday, maybe, they just might. Away We Go is not authentic; Juno is.
Both films are chock full of actors like Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, Catherine O’Hara, Maggie Gyllenhaal and others who, often by their presence, tell you the film is “indie.” Or that this film will not have anything explode in it or have cars driven recklessly through city streets. But take Allison Janney who is in both films. Her character in Away We Go is so crass, broken, and awful that we cringe while her character in Juno is also edgy but in a way that is like a mother protecting her cub.
There are even some stylistic touches that are the same. In Juno, we have the title cards that divide the seasons and thus the pregnancy. In “Away We Go,” those title cards divide the film by locations. Both use a lot of music but Juno had the fresh soundtrack that ended up on a billion iPods while Away We Go seems to traffic more in classic rock.
In story, Away We Go is, as the title implies, episodic while Juno is far more focused. The couple in the latter stays while the story moves. Road pictures are great, but in Away We Go, Mendes has chosen not to see his couple learn too many obvious lessons. They keep moving, but they don’t appear to pull any lessons together until the very last moment. In Juno, the decision happens earlier and the story chugs off in the direction of unpacking its aftermath. Overall, Juno feels more satisfying on this score.
The characters in Juno seem almost note-perfect. Some of the performances in Away We Go are over the top. That’s not necessarily bad, but it does make them seem more like vehicles for social commentary than flesh-and-blood.
Now for that disqualifying blunder…
Away We Go has a lot to recommend it. It’s like an oasis of low-key in a summer movie season featuring robots, violence, and high-octane action. Here you can relax, watch a nice little film and know that the people behind it are Oscar approved. I liked a lot of it. I questioned the Maggie Gyllenhaal storyline as being just asanine and, even though there were some people like that in Eugene, Oregon when I lived there, I think they are fewer and fewer today. But the road-block to acceptance is the story of Burt’s brother. His wife dumps him and, apparently, leaves without a trace. Burt and Verona tend to the devastated brother and his sad little daughter in Miami. The brother seems nice enough and his daughter is an innocent being harmed by a cruel mother. This should answer the quest. Burt and Verona seem to have found what they’re looking for. There’s your ending. They settle down in Miami, Burt reconnects with his brother, Verona practices real child skills and not theoretical ones with the daughter, and… well… Away We Go.
Only that’s not what happens. They move on and settle someplace else where they will be all by themselves. Huh? That’s the lesson? Nope, for me, the lesson was found in Miami and tragically rejected. What were the writers thinking? Why didn’t Mendes challenge them? Why? Why is it better to go it alone? Isn’t that the problem we face today, that all of us feel so disconnected? C’mon Sam, you blew this one.
On the other hand, in re-watching Juno I was reminded how much I loved this movie and saw even more clearly why it was not only an indie darling but a cross-over success. If you miss Away We Go, you can catch it again at home later (and be as thrown by the ending as a lot of people). But you might just enjoy re-visiting Juno and saying hi to a very special friend.