With COVID-19 cutting a swathe through just about everything worldwide, it’s no surprise that cinema is being as affected as anything else.
In just one day, one of my favourite cinema chains temporarily closed, the Sydney Film Festival was cancelled, the French Film Festival was postponed and my other favourite cinema group went to daily session releases, pending some kind of eventual closure. That was on top of the release dates of many films such as A Time to Die, Lovebirds and A Quiet Place II being pushed back until much later in the year.
So, given that new movies are very thin on the ground, out in the big wide world at least, I’ve decided to raid my DVD and Blu-Ray shelves, pull out the films I’d always meant to watch but never quite managed to and finally give them their moment in the reviewing sun.
As you self-isolate and quarantine and stay snug and safe indoors, I hope you’ll enjoy my very own COVID-19 retro movie festival!
For most couples, the journey to parenthood is usually one of “Yay! We’re having a baby!” with all the understandable excitement that brings to “OMG. WE … ARE … HAVING … A … BABY” with all the attendant worries and concern that come with realising your life together will never be the same again.
In Sam Mendes’ 2009 film Away We Go, Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) and Burt Farlander (John Krasinski), a couple deeply in love but intermittently worried (Verona is anyway) they may be “fuck-ups” since they don’t have the house, car, and importantly, a favourite place to call home, are not immune to this trajectory, wondering where it is they, and their soon-to-arrive daughter, really belong.
The jobs are fine; just not all the stuff that supposed to go along with them.
A move to the Denver, Colorado area to be near Burt’s enthusiastically engaged but obliviously self-involved parents, Gloria and Jerry (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) brings this perceived discrepancy between expectations and reality into sharp relief when the hoped-for actively-involved grandparents announce that they are moving to Antwerp, Belgium, a month before the baby’s birth.
Verona particularly is gutted, all too aware that this wholly unexpected announcement upsets everything they had planned, throwing a plethora of considerations including where they should live with a major life change so close to making its flesh-and-blood presence felt.
Burt, far more laconic and more interested in becoming a better wood cobbler (he means “carver”) so he can give his daughter the Huck Finn, Big Mississippi outdoor childhood he wistfully envisages for her, isn’t unduly troubled but Verona’s entreaty that it is an issue and maybe they need to move before the birth takes place, prompt the cross-country that becomes the narrative backbone, and titular inspiration, for this wholly entertaining film.
A film which, by the way plays a great many of its comedically-exaggerated characters for laughs but never at the expense of the central various question at the heart of the story – where is the best place to raise a child and more pressingly, initially for Verona but later for Burt when his own brother has some unexpected parenting issues, will be they good parents and are they even up to the task?
Anchoring their great existential race across the United States and Canada in search of the perfect home for their nascent new family is the central relationship between Verona and Burt.
Sweetly and completely devoted to each other in a way that for all its endlessly loving moments feels very grounded and real – this is important because it’s their relationship that throws all the others they encounter into the kind of focus that affects their final decision – they are the True North of Away We Go, a thinking person’s comedy that is very funny but never once sacrifices its characters in search of cheap laughs.
Sacrifice them it may not but having a ball with them it does with gleeful alacrity as Verona and Burt go from Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona to Madison, Wisconsin, on to Montréal, Québec, and finally Miami, Florida before they finally find a place to call home (the exact nature of which is best left to the viewing).
On paper, it’s simply a fact-finding mission to meet up with old friends and relatives, a chance to weigh various cities and towns up and find out and find which won best fits them and the dreams they have for a family they feel ill-equipped to shepherd.
But as they meet up with Verona’s completely and hilariously inappropriate boss from the couple’s Chicago days (Lily, as played by Alison Janney, is a riot of fun that comes close to stealing the film) in Phoenix and then Verona’s sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) with whom she is close, bonded in part by some painful family history, in Tucson, it becomes to become apparent that there are many variables inherent in this impending thing called parenthood.
Lily, for instance, with her morose, near-inert conspiracy theory embracing husband Lowell (Jim Gaffifan) by her side, is a study in glib hands-off-ishness, a mother who treats her children as disinterested bystanders who are ripe for little else than maternal mockery.
She loves them sure but is all too aware that whatever you dream parenthood will look like doesn’t actually get realised when the kids are in your hands.
This shakes Burt and Verona but they continue on, stopping in Tucson for some much-needed family time, accompanied by some gentle encouragement to Verona to face her much-ignored emotional demons, before heading to Madison where Burt’s childhood friend “LN” (pronounced “ellen”) (Maggie Gyllenhaal)and Roderick (Josh Hamilton) awaits with some cringeworthy New Age ideas on parenting.
So relentlessly self-involved are the couple who believe earnestly and with the insufferable arrogance of the True Believer in the Three S’s – no separation, sugar and stroller, the latter with a comedic ferocity that makes this scene a must-watch – that Burt and Verona soon decide they not only hate the couple, whose philosophical, mung beans and tofu pretentiousness masks a ruthless scornfulness of others, but want nothing to do with this overly-indulgent parenting style.
Montréal is a happier stop where they spend a happy day and night with old college friends Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch Garnett (Melanie Lynskey) and their contented brood of adopted children whose decision to create their own family masked some pain of their own, a lingering issue which drives a benign schism of sorts between the couples and prompts a move on to happier pastures.
The final stop with Burt’s brother Courtney (Paul Schneider) comes with its own challenges to the aspirant parents but also prompts them to reassess what it is they want from their lives as new parents and their hoped-for blissfully happy family.
The great joy of Away We Go, which deftly balances a goofy, offbeat indie comedic sensibility with some serious big “Q” questions about life, love and the pursuit of perfect parenting – there is no such thing, of course, something that becomes apparent to Verona and Burt who commit to simply trying to do their best, the best any parent can reasonably hope for – is that treats its the angst of its central characters with respect and due deference.
Everyone around them, is a step or two hundred away from who they are, a couple who genuinely and supportively like and love each other and who, all expectations aside, simply want to be a happy family, and while these quickly but effectively-realised cast of characters make chaotic merry with the devoted couple’s ill-defined hopes for the future, they never do so at the expense of the seriousness of their cross-country quest to find some sort of instructional parenting nirvana.
It’s rare to have a comedy, a quietly-spoken one true but one which nevertheless delivers significant comedic punch, manage to be both funny and thoughtful but Away We Go manages it with pleasing aplomb, delivering up a road movie of sorts that asks some big questions, has a lot of oversized fun asking and answering them and yet still manages to land at an emotionally affecting place that never feels twee or overdone but earnest and real leaving characters we have come to know and love in a place that will feel instantly recognisable and reassuringly familiar to anyone who has set off on the unpredictable journey towards parenthood.