Hans here. Snarky headline I know, but sometimes you have to act like you hate what you love to make yourself feel cool and other self-deluding rationalizations.
Indie movies are movies that I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself that I don’t like. I’m not gonna wade through a lot of debate about the term ‘indie.’ It used to just mean you were financed outside of a major studio. The Sundance generation of the late 80s and early 90s took it a step further and started to define the term along the lines of “independence of vision.” But at our present moment, the term ‘indie’ transcends all questions of financing or vision. It has become a style with a specific set of themes and problems that are consistently addressed.
Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, Juno, Adventureland, Lost in Translation. Think about these movies and everything that they have in common and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. You find themes of youthful self doubt and personal identity crises abound within each of them. Throw in a quirky, slightly episodic narrative approach and you’ve got a slightly better bead on it. Kick it up with a consideration for the audience’s college radio-centric musical taste (in some cases) and you’ve got the style almost completely pegged.
Sure, there are plenty of “indie” films that don’t possess these elements, but the ones that do seem to be the most successful. We have another coming out later this summer, (500) Days of Summer, that is getting tons of money pumped into it by its American distributor, Fox Searchlight, in the hope of Little Miss Sunshine or Napoleon Dynamite-type success. Indie films of this type are a useful bit of counter-programming for studios who bet the farm on their hugeass blockbusters and then distribute movies that their subsidiaries (Paramount Vantage, Fox Searchlight) have picked up on the festival circuit. Or you have a studio like Focus Features, the production company behind the subject of today’s review, Away We Go, that specialize in these types of film and clean up nicely producing the thinking man’s movie or at least something that resembles it.
I like most of these movies, so I really have no business complaining, but it is really off-putting to see that independent film has, in many ways, developed into its own genre capable of being pidgeonholed and programmed by a studio executive. I liked feeling that going to see an independent film meant that you were going to see something unconventional or aberrant to whatever was considered mainstream at that time. Films like Away We Go represent how movies with an indie spirit are being made to fill a spot in the marketplace in the wake of the successes that were Juno or Garden State. There are still indie films out there that push the envelope and strive to show us something we’ve never seen before (Hunger is a good example), but its sad to know that these edgy, brave films aren’t being given as much attention because American distributors feel that they are filling that need in the marketplace with the Away We Go‘s of the world.
And the real pain in the ass of this whole situation is that most of these movies are ultimately pretty good or at least have good stuff in them. Away We Go is no exception. This is a heartfelt, personal film. The type that makes you feel, at the end, that you’ve witnessed 90 minutes or two hours of complete honesty. One problem is that its life within the indie style makes it seem stale or predictable at times. Despite all of its heart and honesty, you can see the personal epiphany moment that inevitably happens at the end of the story about ten miles away.
That isn’t to say you don’t enjoy getting there to some degree, but Away We Go utilizes a pretty standard technique of the indie film, the road trip, in order to get where it is going. Ala Little Miss Sunshine, it is always easier to give your film production value if you set it in a bunch of different places but shoot it around the same general area. In the case of this film, it is the journey of Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), a pregnant couple, to find a suitable home for their soon-to-be-born child.
We open the story with the two living modestly in a shabby home. They live there to be close to his parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hare), two selfish eccentrics who elect to move to Belgium for two years rather than be around for the birth of their first grandchild. After learning of this, Burt and Verona elect for a trip of their own to find new surroundings for their budding family.
The trip takes them around the country to various family members, old college roommates, childhood friends, in the hope of finding a good fit. The structure reminded me a lot of Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, where Bill Murray travels to four different old flames in the hope of uncovering the child that he never knew he had. Each lady winds up a comedic caricature of a different social type, providing a crazy road trip for our man Murray. Burt and Verona encounter the same scenario.
Burt and Verona are basically portrayed as reasonable, smart, fairly stable people who are slightly terrified about the parental tasks awaiting them down the road. Their journey emerges as a sample tour of different parenting styles that amuse us and terrify them even further. They start in Phoenix with an old boss of Verona’s (Allison Janney), a profane alcoholic who treats her chubby children like employees and her anxious husband (Jim Gaffigan) like an embarrassing slob.
They then move to Madison, WI where they meet up with Burt’s childhood chum, L E (Maggie Gyllenhaal), one of those campus feminist types who preaches the virtues of smothering parental love (she doesn’t believe in strollers because they keep you too far away from your kids) wrapped in a blanket of New Age bullshit. Next on the trip are Munch (Melanie Lynskey) and Tom (Chris Messina), old college friends who have adopted a slew of kids but still harbor the pain of never being able to have their own. The final stop is with Court (Paul Schneider), Burt’s brother whose wife has just left him alone with their young daughter whom Court fears will now never have a normal life.
Criticism about this film has been all over the map. Some have been happy to be swept up by its warm, whimsical tone. Others have found its perspective about the American parental psyche to be smug and condescending. A.O. Scott wrote that “this movie does not like you.” My idol Roger Ebert countered with “maybe it has good reason not to.” I would agree that there is a smugness about the film; the characters of Janney and Gyllenhaal are put forward as dispensable vessels of comedy, but director Sam Mendes also doesn’t seem to like them very much, and addresses their parenting strategies with more contempt than he does sympathy or understanding.
Burt and Verona are also tough characters to root for. They have the gift of always being able to feel slightly better than their surroundings, which allows them to size up and judge every social encounter as they are experiencing it. This strategy cheapens each episode, as we know they are just doing it as a bit of intelligence gathering for what comes to feel like a class project on parenting.
But this is also a very funny and warm movie. While Burt and Verona may be smug and convinced of their own superiority, they are also genuinely loving toward one another and their child. I liked the fact that the movie doesn’t conjure up conflict about their relationship; they are in love and seem likely to stay that way, but are uncertain about how that love will endure in the coming years and how it will change with the arrival of their child. Krasinski and Rudolph have good chemistry together and even if their characters aren’t inherently likable, they do a good job of making them at least seem likeable.
I’m in a weird spot because all of the stuff that I so often feel is formulaic and conventional about this type of movie is the same stuff that winds up captivating me. I mentioned a college radio-centric consideration for the audience’s musical taste earlier, and this film follows that line, with songs by Alexi Murdoch peppered in throughout. But I love Alexi Murdoch and that decision works for the film, conjuring up memories of the Cat Stevens’ songs in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude. I’d also be lying if I said that the end of this movie didn’t move me. I won’t give away what happens, but it is one of those endings that reveals something about life that you may not have considered, and makes you hug yourself because you now possess the knowledge.
It is interesting to see Mendes tackle material like this so fast after striking out with Revolutionary Road. His heart is in this one way more. It isn’t that much better than his previous film, but he seems to understand the insecurities of these characters better and also likes them a lot more. I like when big, studio-centric directors make small movies like these. It gives them a chance to address themes that they might miss on bigger productions. Mendes hits the mark in some ways with this flick and I would like to see him make more movies that seem this close to his heart, even if they are to atone for the clusterfuck that was Revolutionary Road.
Away We Go has a lot of good stuff in it, but its similarity to past indie hits makes it hard not to dismiss in some ways. It’s a shame that the indie film has developed a formula and a style of its own. I was happy when these movies were more unpredictable. That, to me, was the point of them. But even if it is predictable, there is still good, interesting stuff in it and you still don’t mind going along for the ride. I know I don’t. I get more out of movies like these than I do most of the stuff on the marketplace. DAMN IT. I’m saying what they want me to say. I AM IN A GLASS CAGE OF EMOTION!!!!