If you’re trying to find an affordable house and a community of like-minded folks to help you raise your kids, every second-tier city in North America is up for grabs. In Away We Go, Burt and Verona are looking for a town that feels homey and familiar, friends who are kind and supportive, and a house that fits them like a glove.
Yes, this is a movie about Millennials searching for an affordable and pleasant place to live in a world where real estate’s gone crazy. But it’s also about our notion of tribe and family, the support that we crave when we embark upon a new stage of life, and why these things can be so hard to find.
Burt (John Krasinski) is learning how to tie knots, build a kiln, and cobble shoes in preparation for parenthood. A dreamer with a goofy retro view of the world, he’s chosen an odd job: selling life insurance futures to middle-aged executives. This work requires socializing and sucking up on the golf course, so Burt adopts a persona, channeling a garrulous talk show host, feeling that his real self just won’t do.
Verona (Maya Rudolph) is a freelance medical illustrator, six months pregnant and mourning the recent death of both her parents. One moment she is drawing a subdural hematoma with great concentration, as if she’s responsible for documenting cause of death. The next she breaks for a “Moms-to-be” yoga video, struggling to find exercise space on a cluttered floor. Verona surveys their one room house–an elongated shed with a piece of cardboard taped over a broken window–and wonders, “Are we screw-ups? People who just can’t get their lives together?”
This brave and wonderfully irreverent film was written by Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and Vendela Vida (And Now You Can Go) while they were starting a family, teaching writing to middle school kids in San Francisco, editing The Believer magazine, and running McSweeney’s an independent press. These two know something about living on the fly—and about the value of home as the fixed foot of the compass in uncertain times.
Of course, Burt and Verona want to live near people they love. Their first thought is to stay close to Burt’s parents who live in a “mid-century modern” ranch house just down the road. But this couple is shockingly self-aborbed. Looking at Verona’s sonogram, Burt’s mother (Catherine O’Hara) recalls her own experience giving birth, “surrounded by three firemen all looking at my body, and noticing how hot I was.”
Burt’s father (Jeff Daniels) performs a Native American blessing on Verona’s baby bump then shows off his latest acquisition—a $12,000 bronze sculpture of a Choctaw maiden. As he drones on about his art collection, it never occurs to him that these young people might need some financial help. Next, these self-involved culture-appropriating New Agers announce their plan to move to Antwerp, a month before the baby’s due.
“Can we get another set of grandparents?” Verona asks Burt. Thus begins their quest to find a place that feels like home.
First stop: Phoenix
Verona’s ex-boss Lily (Allison Janney) lives here with her downer husband who’s obsessed with the end of the world. To vent, Lily mercilessly taunts her kids. Of her son Taylor, she says, “We gotta do something about those ears…he looks like a trophy.” Then she turns on her daughter. “Ashley’s only 12 and she looks like a dyke. Show Verona your tough girl walk.” With a tongue like a viper, Lily has no friends. She’s manic, drinks a lot, and wants Verona and Burt to distract her from her awful life.
The draw here is Burt’s old friend, L.N. Fisher Herrin (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a university professor with children of her own. L.N. passes judgement on Verona’s tilted uterus, touts the practice of “family bed” where your children get to watch you having sex, and is a self-proclaimed lactation expert, even offering to suckle other people’s kids. When Burt and Verona buy her an expensive stroller—a gift way beyond their means—L.N. is enraged, “No, no, no! I love my babies,” she shrieks, “Why would I want to push them away from me?”
Verona’s college friend “Munch” (Melanie Lynskey) lives here in a gorgeous townhouse with her husband, Tom (Chris Messina) and four adopted children. Two grade-schoolers (one black and one Asian) and two teens (one with pink clown hair, and the other as clean cut as a science nerd.) They are all cuddled on the sofa watching “The Sound of Music.”
“We could move here!” Verona proclaims, inspired by this rainbow coalition. This happy portrait of diversity seems too good to be true.
Over drinks at a local night club, Tom confesses a growing sense of loneliness and disappointment. “When the kids are up at all hours, you think whatever happened to swimming naked off the coast of Greece?” Munch, very drunk, slinks up on the stage and mimes a pole dance in her mommy jeans.
“She had another miscarriage….Thursday. This is her fifth,” Tom says, describing their relentless quest to conceive, as if the only “real baby” is one you seed and deliver on your own.
There are other stops along the way—other dashed hopes and expectations—until Burt and Verona realize that making a home and starting a family are not rational events with sure outcomes and plot-able trajectories. Indeed, they are acts of faith, requiring constant adaptation—and yes, a dash of poetry. One night they lie on a trampoline, look up at a starry sky, and define their commitment.
“Do you promise to let me cobble for our daughter and teach her the lore of the Mississippi?” Burt asks.
“Do you promise that it doesn’t matter what she weighs? That when she talks, you’ll really listen, and her fights will be your fights?” Verona says.
“If I die some boring death, do you promise to tell that her father died in hand-to-hand combat in an attempt to save 200 Chechnyan orphans?”
There is a happy ending. But I won’t tell you where Burt and Verona finally settle down…only that the right house has been there waiting for them all along.
Watch this film to understand the pitfalls of projecting happiness onto others or thinking that there’s a formula for the perfect life.
This sweet and wickedly funny story is about coming home to ourselves—-trusting our own values and resources, and learning how to improvise.