Director Sam Mendes – when he's not in war (i.e. Jarhead) or gangster (i.e. Road To Perdition) mode – he is known for very serious films that deal with real life issues and are presented in sometimes shockingly uncompromising ways (see American Beauty and Revolutionary Road as examples). But Mendes' newest film, the virtually irresistible Away We Go, is significantly lighter and quirkier than anything the director has given us before. Taking notes from the likes of Juno, Little Miss Sunshine and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (minus the weirdness), Away We Go is charming, loveable and extremely enjoyable in its quirkiness.
Away We Go tells the story of a couple who are pregnant with their first child who decide to travel to various different cities around America in search of the perfect place to start their family. Along the way they have misadventures and visit various different friends and relatives, some helping the couple and some not.
Away We Go is built on a structure of quirks and charms that carry it a long way. It's very hard to get this Juno-esque quirkiness right without it seeming forced or contrived, and both Mendes and married screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida get it just about right. It takes the shape of a romantic comedy wrapped within a road movie, flitting from city to city as the young visit friends and family, all the while trying to find the perfect home. The couple – played with brilliant comic timing and an irresistible adorableness by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph – are characters rarely seen in movies; sweet, innocent, full of hope and life. I guess Hollywood would rather go the safe route of having every second movie feature a serial killer or good-looking 20-somethings, than take more risks with genuinely nice characters like these.
A lot of the movie is a series of comedic vignettes featuring the various people the couple visit while on their indefinite trip. Krazinski and Rudolph are there to tie everything together, but it almost seems like an excuse on Mendes' part to present the various other people in the couple's lives. Maggie Gyllenhaal adds a weird and creepy tone to the film as a mother who breast feeds her toddlers, despises the use of strollers ("I love my babies, why would I want to push them away?" she retorts at one point) and takes the philosophy of peace on earth a little too far. Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara are hilarious in short roles as Krazinski's parents, Allison Janney goes against her nice housewife role in Juno with a tirade of swearing and inappropriate jokes (in front of her kids, no less), and Chris Messina helps to bring an unpredictably, but thankfully temporary, dark turn to the proceedings.
Mendes trades the confines of the white picket fences and brightly coloured mail boxes (both American Beauty and Revolutionary Road saw him examining odd behaviour within this type of location) for the open road and interchanging cities. The couple bounce around from Phoenix to Madison to Montreal, all set apart and yet bound together by a title card stating the city they're on their way to (It's not that hard to guess it takes the form of "Away to Phoenix," for example). And it's a refreshing change of not only locations but pace for Mendes, having been used to slow burning, methodical filmmaking with the aforementioned American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, as well as Road To Perdition and even Jarhead. It's not necessarily better – I think he'll always be more comfortable working with his serious-with-a-dose-of-black-humour cap on – but just nice to see as a contrast from the once-stage director.
What's most important about Away We Go is the fact that we truly care about the young couple. The film starts by dropping us into their lives at the moment they realise she's pregnant – in a comical bedroom scene that's as uncomfortable as it is charming – and take us back out before the event you'd expect the whole thing to build towards (you can probably guess just by looking at the plot). And yet it has all of the emotional payoff that you could hope for, and that is precisely because we grow to care about the couple within the film's 95-plus minute runtime. Mark my words, that's not a happy accident, it only appears so. Mendes talent as a filmmaker who brings us tales plucked in nature from real life is why Away We Go just works.
I sense that Away We Go will perhaps turn some people off just in principle because of it's quirky and cute nature. The main characters are genuinely nice people – are modern-day movie goers generally interested in that sort of thing? Sometimes they are, but sex and death seem to sell better. Despite some unevenness and a sense of it feeling longer than it actually is, it's very funny, thoroughly enjoyable and emotionally satisfying all at once. I really can't see there being a more naturally charming and likeable movie released this year, and we have the combined savvy direction, witty and honest writing, and fetching characters (and performances) to thank for that.