Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Film Festival: 'Away We Go'

Away We Go was to be the first in my "40 Weeks Film Festival." It's one of my favorite films about pregnancy, in part because the pregnancy isn't really the focus. It raises the emotional stakes, but the movie focuses on the protagonists' relationship with each other, rather than on their relationship to being expectant parents.

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I'd just started up Away We Go for the second time, and was getting ready to jot down some notes when Westley interrupted me. I paused the movie, warmed up a cup of soy milk and located a lost toy. When I turned my attention back to the screen, this is what I saw:

Away We Go follows Burt and Verona, a couple three months from the birth of their first child, as they travel around North America trying to decide where to call home. The moment above occurs about eight minutes in, and it tells us nearly everything we need to know about the film we're going to see. Burt and Verona occupy the far left of the frame, kissing, unquestionably a loving couple - but with some tension between them (Verona's arms are crossed, Burt's hands are in his pockets). There's a considerable distance between the couple and the right side of the frame, foreshadowing their impending physical and emotional journey. The framing suggests that they have quite a ways to go before they arrive. Landscape fills most of the frame, placing the characters in the realm of the emotional and the romantic (as in Romanticism). The World is, if not front, certainly center; it is just as much of a presence - if not quite a character - in Away We Go as Burt and Verona.

The film's establishing shots often position the characters in such a way as to emphasize the power of the world around them. Burt and Verona often appear to be searching for their place in the film itself in addition to the world of the film.

However, The World is something of a red herring. In the end, it doesn't matter to this little road-trip movie nearly as much as two-shots and close-ups of the protagonists do. Locations certainly matter, and expository text repeatedly appears to tell the audience where we are - or, rather, where we're going: "Away To Tucson," "Away to Phoenix," and so on. But in each location, the story is really about relationships.

And that is the thing I love most about this film. As Burt and Verona visit friends and relatives, they find something broken in every relationship - abuse, cynicism, self-righteousness, sorrow - but each of the couples featured in the film is a perfect match for each other. Interestingly, Burt and Verona are the only couple we see argue with one another onscreen. Even the most insufferable people seem to have found an equally insufferable partner. The minor characters are, in effect, perfect for each other. (Interestingly, the couples who are never onscreen together - Verona's sister and her boyfriend, Rob, and Burt's brother and his wife, Helena - are, apparently, not good matches at all. Rob and Helena never appear. Verona's sister and Burt's brother point up the protagonists' anxieties about their own perhaps not-so-perfect match.)

When I first saw Away We Go, I didn't think much about the event that prompts Burt and Verona to choose a location, but it's a wonderful antidote to the not-so-perfect world (and families) they've encountered. Verona tells a story from her childhood: Her father had an orange tree, of which he was very proud, but which never produced any fruit. One morning, Verona's mother got Verona and her sister up early to hang fruit - oranges, pineapples, melons - in the tree. This becomes a "thing" the girls do from time to time, though after the first instance, they switch to plastic fruit.

This is literally a "family tree," planted by Verona's father and growing on her parents' property. It's not perfect, but it still "bears fruit" and brings the family a lot of joy. We learn that Verona's parents both died when she was in college, and as the film unfolds we see that Verona's greatest anxiety is that she is not good enough to fill the "Good Parent" shoes her own parents wore so well. She worries aloud that she and Burt are "fuck-ups." But the tree story - which is immediately followed by Burt and Verona arriving at and deciding to live in Verona's parents' empty house - proves that it doesn't matter. You can be "broken" and still bear fruit. It's not about being perfect, but about choosing to overcome ones own brokenness.

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Some other fun things about Away We Go:
  • The names are genius. "Verona" is, of course, the city of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (the unsurpassed imperfect perfect couple), and Burt's last name, "Farlander" suggests travel.
  • Verona is the driving force of the relationship (she puts together their travel itinerary and then explains it to Burt before literally attaching it to him), and is frequently shown behind the wheel of a car. Burt only drives after the tree story is told.
  • Burt clearly gets his penchant for malapropism from his father, one of the film's first suggestions that being "a fuck-up" is inherited.
  • The production design is phenomenal. Looking at the "stuff" in the background, I think, "These people would absolutely have that!"
  • The protagonists have some conversations that Rob and I have totally had. It's kind of embarrassing.
  • Burt and Verona have a meal with every couple they visit. This is a great way to contrast the couples as units, by cutting across the table from one two-shot to the other. It also gives weight to the idea that Burt and Verona are trying these various people on as potential friends and chosen family by staging a "family dinner" with them.
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3 comments:

MOMSICLE VIBE said...

I don't have time to read your post right now (sick toddler...) but I am so excited you posted about this because I was SO wondering where it was on your list when you first mentioned pregnancy films!!!!
Checking back in later :)

MOMSICLE VIBE said...

Nap time - I'm back!!
I loved that movie. Thanks for breaking down WHY I loved it so much. I have so much to learn from you!!! You've got my analytical wheels churning and the rust is flaking off!!
I saw Get Low and The Fighter this week. I've been busy scraping my brains off the living room wall, because both films blew them out of my head.

Amanda said...

I loved this movie. When we got pregnant we were in a big transition and we actually ended up moving about four times before we finally found a place to settle down, three months before I was due, if I recall correctly.

fun fact- I used to work at the resort (the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Resort) they visit in Tucson. Too bad they filmed after I left. The thought of getting a glimpse of John Krasinski while getting my afternoon Starbucks fix is too much. I was actually working there when I found out I was pregnant, so the movie holds a little soft spot in my heart for that.