"Away We Go," the latest film from director Sam Mendes, is the kind of small, indie flick that even mainstream audiences can love.
That is, unless you hate it.
Personally, I loved "Away We Go," despite being completely taken aback by the fact that it is Sam Mendes at the helm rather than, say, Michel Gondry.
I thought of Gondry often throughout "Away We Go," or at least the best of Gondry such as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "The Science of Sleep." Gondry possesses an almost mystical ability to weave a ruminative cinematic journey through even the most abstract of human experiences.
It's not so much that "Away We Go" centers itself on the abstracts of human experiences. It's that the journey that Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski) undertake in their self-discovery becomes one filled with the unspeakable, intangible moments in human relationships, family and the seemingly elusive search for that thing we call home.
Verona and Burt are a thirtysomething couple who live comfortably uncomfortable. They are at peace with their rather fundamental existence in a rather ramshackle dwelling not too far from his parents' home. They love each other and they accept each other's quirks, and aren't particularly motivated to move beyond their basic existence.
That is, until Verona becomes pregnant.
Thus, Verona and Burt begin a search for that place they can truly call home, a search complicated by his parents', Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels, decision to relocate to Antwerp a month before Verona's due date.
This leads the soon to be parents on a cross-country journey into the lives of friends, peers, old acquaintances and others for whom parenting seems a loose and ambiguous concept at best.
Some of Verona and Burt's are satirical and funny while others are nothing short of horrifying.
For example, there's Lily (Allison Janney) and Lowell (Jim Gaffigan). Lily is a horrifying and bitter drunk, Verona's former boss whose relationship with her own children is one of pathetic apathy and drunken rages.
Then, there's a trip to Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an old friend of Burt's now known as L.N. She's a staunch feminist whose style of parenting is most accurately described as abstract methodology devoid of humanity.
Verona and Burt next venture to Montreal, where college pals Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey) seem most in a world of denial and then, finally, onto the family of Burt's brother, whose wife has recently left the family.
Each place that Verona and Burt searches out home only serves to reinforce the idea that, perhaps, they are better equipped than anyone to determine home for their soon to be family.
It is this self-righteousness and, at least on a certain level, condescension that has most troubled audiences and critics alike.
Yet, isn't this the way it always is?
We read the self-help books, we attend the lectures, we watch the videos and we take everyone else's advice and then, and only then, do we realize that we knew the right answer all along.
It is a tad pretentious, but then again, so is the entire concept that we human beings have this magical, mystical ability to create something so wondrous as life itself.
Over the course of "Away We Go," Mendes and married screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida lead us from a lighthearted exploration through quirky characters into a richly felt, warmly developed tale of two young adults preparing to become new parents and, perhaps, a more complete understanding what home really means.
Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski are perfectly in sync as the comfortably in love young couple searching for a place to call home. Their words, their gestures, their dialogue and their body language resonate richly as a young couple who know each other, accept each other and are unassumingly far advanced in their relationship skills.
While this unlikely to be considered the best Mendes film, it is undeniably his most authentically developed and realized. Whereas recent films such as "Road to Perdition" and the monstrously overrated "Revolutionary Road" were finely tuned, manufactured artistic creations, "Away We Go" feels like it manifests from within the stories of Verona and Burt and their rather eccentric collection of friends and acquaintances.
It is Mendes' tendency towards structured stylings that most inhibits the spontaneity and life of "Away We Go" and, at times, keeps it from blossoming into one of 2009's best films. While Verona and Burt are richly drawn characters, there are other secondary characters who seem painted mostly as caricatures manufactured to illustrate a point. While this issue doesn't arise often, it does so with enough frequency to keep "Away We Go" from achieving the subtle beauty of a film such as "Little Miss Sunshine."
Ellen Kuras' light-centered cinematography is spot-on perfect, while Alex Murdoch's original score fits quite nicely throughout the film's shifting moods. Jess Gonchor's production design is a perfect blend of whimsical, satirical and heartfelt.
"Away We Go."
You will love it.
Unless you hate it.
Either way, you won't forget it.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic