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.Â 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?
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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.Â 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.
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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.
We just saw “Away We Go” and we enjoyed it but didn’t love it. Kind of like your review.
By the way, we love Movie Smackdown. Great concept and execution. You should have a TV series, you know?
Excellent! I have to say that your review of my review wins the Smack review. I was trying to get it posted in a hurry to get out of town to deliver emergency supplies to my daughter away at college. Your points are all ones that actually did piss me off. Two stand out. I thought Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhall were so over-the-top that I wanted to scream. I could not comprehend why they wouldn’t stay in Miami where they could help the brother and his daughter, especially given that the stated goal was to find such a relationship. And I never did understand why she couldn’t marry Burt. (OK, that’s three things).
I think that this smack confirms a suspicion I’ve held for a while: that movies really are getting worse. I’ve certainly noticed that mainstream movies have been suffering lately, but this epidemic of mediocrity has seeped into the indie circuit as well. The last two movies I saw at my local independent movie theater were Away We Go and the trainwreck that was My Life in Ruins (I think Sherry Coben’s review says it all). Juno, while not my favorite movie, sparkled with undeniable wit and charm. Even if you didn’t like it, you had to admit that it was something different and special. And it was also a very well constructed movie; the pacing never felt sluggish, whereas while watching Away We Go, I was bored by the time they went on their second trip. Although I was frequently annoyed by the unrelentingly snappy idiolect and over-the-top precocity of the main character, Juno kept my interest the whole time, and Away We Go made me long for the “good old days” of a year and a half ago when it was playing.
Is it just me, or have indie movies really changed? Maybe I’ve just been seeing the wrong ones, but the label “indie” used to mean something different, assigned to the movies that couldn’t fit into this box or that, the miscellaneous square pegs that defied expectations and challenged viewers more than the average movie. But now I feel like it’s becoming a box of its own: I’ve come to expect a certain kind of music, a certain kind of generically “quirky” character, a certain too-relaxed pace, even a certain type of font on the posters! I find this disappointing, because–to me, at least–an indie movie should be marked by its quality of being UNexpected.
Enjoyed your smack.
A few “Away We Go” questions for you, Bryce.
Do you think it was the filmmakers’ intention to have their lead characters act as self-centered narcissists, another Sam Mendes-helmed hitting-the-broadside-of-a-barn indictment of our culture?
Burt and Verona go looking for a place to raise their daughter, a place where they’ll already know someone, where they’ll have a support system already in place. Everyone they know disappoints them somehow (usually in way over-the-top ways — a screenplay problem as much as a performance problem, I’d suggest — the characters’ clunky overdrawn conceptions are not the fault of Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhall if we’re naming names) and their planned odyssey is ultimately interrupted by a phone call from Burt’s brother cruelly abandoned by his wife. One night soon thereafter, Burt listens to his brother’s cries for help as Verona plays mother to his now motherless daughter, providing exactly the same nurturing and extended family structure to another man’s daughter as she is seeking for hers, and instead of learning the obvious and selfless lesson and settling in Miami, they settle instead for her old homestead, the site of her idyllic Huck-Finn-y childhood, a little plot breadcrumb dropped in the first few minutes of the film and revisited a few times thereafter. Unless that little paradise is a short drive from Miami, I’m gutted by the apparent oversight.
What are the lessons learned here? Every man for himself?
Verona can’t marry Burt EVER because her parents can’t come to the wedding? Really?
I’m an adult and perfectly capable of visiting people I know whose parenting styles differ from my own without exploding in self righteous indignation at the end of an evening. Why are movie characters unable to wait until they’re in the car to deconstruct and critique and scoff like the rest of us? Do other people really enjoy watching our movie surrogates blow up like tantruming children?
And where do economically struggling people in movies get the money to buy airline tickets like movie popcorn when they have cardboard windows and bad fuses? And who buys a McLaren stroller as a hostess gift and leaves it behind once it’s rejected? That’s a serious chunka change. And why can’t someone in an airport place a call to a doctor to confirm a due date? Is buying train tickets really easier than sending a FAX?
Am I getting too cranky and demanding?
Blame the Southern California heat.
Ah, summer. When even the most boneheaded disappointment of an indie film seems worth a look. Maybe it’s the air conditioning in the theater that makes us so terribly grateful…or the obvious good intentions. Still, I wanted to like this one so much more than I did.