In the grand tradition of summer buddy movies, Sam Mendes’ new movie Away We Go presents a couple who take to the road. They’re not running from the law like Thelma and Louise or Manny & Lo, nor simply exploring, like the guys in Sideways; like road trippers from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to Bree and Toby in Transamerica, Verona and Burt are trying to get home. The difference here is that they don’t know where home might be. Verona is six months pregnant, and the couple reminds me of Mr. and Mrs. Mallard in Make Way for Ducklings: they’re looking for a good place to raise their baby.
Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, however, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) have no great faith in their own abilities. A long-time couple in their early thirties, surprised (though not displeased) by the pregnancy, they live in a ramshackle house with cardboard in the windows. Trying to compensate for the general disrepair in which they live, Burt takes a family self-defense class, while also planning to build a kiln and learn how to knit: “I want to be that dad who knows how to make stuff out of wood,” he tells Verona while “cobbling” a piece of wood (“You’re carving, or maybe whittling,” she corrects him). He believes that by piling on reading and classes and study he can be prepared for parenthood. Verona, whose parents died when she was in college, doesn’t believe any amount of preparation makes a difference, so although she’s no more sure of herself than Burt, she is less frantic; she watches a prenatal aerobics tape and mocks it. But still she worries: “We don’t have the basic stuff figured out,” she says to her partner; “I think we might be fuck-ups.”
They’ve been living near Burt’s parents, played fabulously by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels, and counting on their help when the baby comes. But Burt’s parents announce suddenly that they’re pursuing their dream and moving to Antwerp. Burt and Verona are appalled by the abandonment, by the selfishness of the grandparents-to-be – an understandable reaction. Still, I loved the characters and wished the movie could have kept them around. Unfortunately, the film needs them to leave so that Burt and Verona will seek out a new home (and new support). The plot device is a loss, and establishes a pattern where the film’s most flamboyant, entertaining characters are glimpsed during Burt and Verona’s brief visits to friends and family around the country, while the core of the film remains the less vivid couple.
Don’t get me wrong: I love a quiet, talky movie, and Maya Rudolph’s Verona, particularly in conversation with her younger sister, Grace (a radiant Carmen Ejogo) about their deceased parents, is a revelation (especially for those of us who remember her terrifically tacky Donatella Versace on Saturday Night Live). She’s the calm counterpoint to my favorite moms in the film, Allison Janney’s brashly inappropriate Lily and Maggie Gyllenhal’s gauzily dogmatic LN. Lily drinks too much, muses aloud about her 12-year old daughter’s sexuality, and gives Burt a long kiss on the lips; LN, inappropriate in a different way, covertly breastfeeds her friend’s kid and loudly preaches “The 3 S’s: no separation, no sugar, no strollers.” Both women are colorful cartoon figures that brighten the placid movie before Verona and Burt travel to another city, another couple. In between their visits with the various noisy families, the camerawork lingers on the landscape, on the couple moving slowly through it, staring into space; what director Sam Mendes probably intended as balance began to feel like stasis.
Pregnancy is a kind of stasis, of course, and I’m relieved the film didn’t try too hard to counteract that with a dramatic birth scene. Instead, it concludes with Burt and Verona eventually finding a place where they fit. But they don’t seem ever to realize — despite how they react when Burt’s parents leave — that children don’t care so much about the place as the people. No matter how far we travel or how many families we meet, for children, it’s the parents who make the home.