Our Cinematic Autobiography: Away We Go
Dick: Not alphabetical...
Dick: No fucking way.
-- High Fidelity
Cinema is a treasure trail: everything leads somewhere; everything opens up new worlds. It's one of the things that sustain it. When you stumble across a movie for the first time, it becomes irrelevant when it was made. If a movie feels urgent to you -- if you daydream about it at your desk, your stove, your steering wheel -- then its history becomes superfluous. It may as well be a freshly struck print; it may as well be opening at a cinema near you next Friday.
-- It Don't Worry Me: The Revolutionary Films of the Seventies, Ryan Gilbey
Welcome to the first installment of Our Cinematic Autobiography, a series we'll be running throughout the summer. The goal of the series is to talk about the way movies act as signposts in our lives, and how some movies become inextricably tied to times of happiness, or worry, or transition, or any of the billion possible instances that cement ordinary moments into memory. What's amazing about movies is that they're an art form built on a shared experience, yet that experience is different for every individual viewer. The movies that wind up meaning the most to you are those that found you at just the right moment, and you wind up caring about them like you do nothing else. Comedy or drama, great moment or tragic one, good movie or total junk food; there are no wrong answers (not even Bio-Dome).
Away We Go came and went in the summer of 2009 with zero fanfare. It opened in a handful of theaters June 5 to just over $130,000, and it ended its run in August with a domestic box office total below $10 million. It didn't even come close to hitting its production budget ($17 million) or whatever nebulously accounted advertising costs came with it. It debuted against The Hangover and subsequently battled Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a massive blockbuster slate that made it all but impossible for a small, adult-oriented story to find an audience. Almost no one saw this movie.
I was fortunate enough to see it, though. I thought it was charming and funny, smart and wistful. The script from husband-and-wife team Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida played wonderfully with a mix of melancholy and hope, and Sam Mendes's direction played every major turn for the right amount of drama or comedy. Away We Go is also a movie very much of and for a certain transitional way of life: It's all about change, specifically the kind of I-think-I-actually-have-to-make-an-adult-decision-now choices that start popping up in your late 20s. I turned 27 the summer the movie came out, and though viewers of all kinds can (hopefully) find something to enjoy or relate to, the film's examination of love, career, and character resonated with me in unexpected ways.
Away We Go charts one young couple's anxious quest to find a place they feel at home, as they travel the country sampling cities and lifestyles until they discover where they're meant to be. How could I not have been moved by such a story, especially one so well told? I was in the fast water of my 20s, and I was aware every minute of just how much potential for change and failure my life offered. When Burt and Verona (John Krasinksi and Maya Rudolph) try on different lives to see how they fit, I saw myself up there, trying to figure out where I should go and what I was supposed to be doing. I saw people climbing out of the rut they'd dug and finding something new. I wanted that, and I knew I was close to getting it. I just didn't know how.
Life, as the man said, is all about routine. Toward the end of 2008, though, I was getting tired of the routine. I had spent most of the year trying to see how much I could drink in a given night before getting behind the wheel and driving the 20 miles through Los Angeles from the bar to my apartment. I'd spent recklessly. I hadn't cut my hair for more than a year. I slogged through workdays with a grim determination that was never fully mediated by the fleeting weekends. I'd enthusiastically gone after the wrong kind of women specifically because they weren't good for me, and I found myself increasingly willing to lie to them for my own purposes. I got high a few times. I was basically another in a crowd of confused if ultimately well-meaning middle-class twentysomethings, but I didn't feel like I was part of a crowd. I felt like everyone does: that I was figuring this all out on my own.
In 2009, though, I entered a period of what people my age refer to as self-actualization and what people my parents' age would call "getting my shit together." In early summer, two things happened that sped up the process considerably: I met, long-distance, the woman I would eventually marry, and I lost my job. My blossoming relationship and newfound free time meant I had ample opportunity to fly from Los Angeles to Houston to visit her, and it was on the second of the three trips I took that I introduced her to the film. I'd already seen it in L.A., but I knew that she would love it like I did. Not just because it was a good movie, but because it so sharply captured who we were and what we were feeling at that moment. It's a film about a young couple taking refuge in each other against the world, just as she and I were doing. So much of the film seemed to be an eerie reflection of what I was going through, in fact -- from the doubts about career choice to the uncertainty of where I might end up living -- that I experienced that almost uncomfortable connection that comes from seeing a work of art that feels inspired by the secrets you've never told anyone.
We saw the film -- our first together -- at one of the few theaters in town friendly to small or foreign fare, with only a handful of other people for company. Watching the movie with her was an experience like nothing else. To see these fumbling proxies before us, working through the problems we'd left behind to come to the movies, was shattering in a way. The couple on screen had more time together than we did then, but not much. We watched them dream of family, and console their loved ones in tragedy, and promise to care for each other no matter what. We saw a semblance of our own new-formed love in light and music, and it sealed the movie as ours forever.
I still think a lot about the movie, even though I haven't watched it from start to finish in a year or two. I'll catch pieces of it on cable, and I'll stop and watch until some other duty calls. Sometimes I'll look up clips online or even rewatch them at home. The movie's episodic nature lends itself to this kind of partial re-viewing, of pulling out scenes and segments and reliving them for a few minutes before putting the disc back on the shelf. I'll watch Burt righteously scold his wacky sister figure; I'll watch the happy couple mourn with friends who've lost a child; I'll watch Burt comfort his brother during a separation. These moments feel like memories of personal experience to me, and the film acts as much like a photo album as it does a full narrative.
That time I saw the movie with the woman I'd one day marry was the second of three trips I made to Texas that summer; the fourth was a permanent move. When I came back for good -- when I came home -- I couldn't help but think of Burt and Verona, wandering the countryside until they finally put down roots. They spend the entire movie trying to latch onto existing families, but they don't settle down until they realize that they are the family; they are their own home, wherever they lay their heads. It's a sweet, wistful, wonderful movie, but it will always be more than that for me and my wife. It's a part of who we were, and are. Movies that do that live forever.