Our Cinematic Autobiography: Away We Go
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Our Cinematic Autobiography: Away We Go

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | June 19, 2012 | Comments ()

Dick: It looks as if you're reorganizing your records. What is this, though? Chronological?
Rob: No....
Dick: Not alphabetical...
Rob: Nope.
Dick: What?
Rob: Autobiographical.
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.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • tamatha_uhmelmahaye

    Great post, Dan! (Yes, yes, I'm late to the party.)
    I love this movie--I own it and the soundtrack. When my local video store announced that it was closing, this was one of the last movies I rented from it.
    I, like you, was one of the lucky ones whooriginally caught it in the theater. I went, in no small part, based on your original review.

  • rachel612

    Okay, I'm the odd one out. Away We Go was twee and pretentious and seemed like it had been made - like his Must Be The Place - largely to take advantage of tax credits in certain locations. I hated it.

  • Sara Habein

    Great idea for a series. And excellent post, Dan.

  • Toph

    The name's Vendela Vida. Not Vega.

  • DizMixen

    Though I agree with pissant and reanalyst about the ending of this movie, I still loved and love it (and was lucky enough to see it in a theatre). I also still think about it all the time, mostly 'cause they just got couples right. Just this weekend I was travelling with my partner and I thought of the scene where Burt's wondering where they're going and Verona says, "I stapled your itinerary inside your coat." That scene and so many like them captured the tiny intimacies and ups and downs of coupledom which is often missing from so many movies.

  • Tegan Amanda

    Whatever your thoughts on Away We Go no one can disagree that this is just wonderful, Carlson. Straight to the tumblr.


  • mona_sterling

    I loved the hell out of this movie. My husband and I were in our mid-thirties when it came out, two kids, jobs, etc., but we recognized both our younger and current selves in Burt and Verona. That desire to figure things out--"Are we fuck-ups?" as Verona asks Burt at one point--doesn't fully leave you, especially once your kids start to get older and you realize just how high the stakes really are.
    Though the supporting characters were a shade over-the-top, I thought the film portrayed Burt and Verona's relationship so realistically it redeemed some of that silliness. The dynamics of successful long-term relationships/marriages are so rarely portrayed well, and Away We Go just captured it beautifully. So looking forward to this series!!!!

  • Felix

    i feel the same way. this movie was the first that my future wife and i went to see together. it bonded us immediately and it will always be my favorite moviegoing experience for just how much it resonated in our chests in the same way at the same time.

  • Ty

    This was a great article. Away We Go is a tremendous film, and tremendously underrated. There are 5 or 6 incredible performances in it, and the fact that Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski aren't getting more dramatic work since it came out is baffling to me. And it is easily Mendes's best film.

  • Judge Holdenmynuts

    good piece! i saw that movie and enjoyed it, but i am blown away that it cost $10 million to make. that is insane... you'd think for that kind of money you could at least blow some shit up or have Maya Rudolph turn into the Hulk...
    also, "Fumbling Proxies" is the name of my new indie rock band ...

  • pugalug

    I love this movie (and am always trying to get people to watch it) love this piece and LOVE the Ryan Gilbey quote--such a piece of truth! Definitely looking forward to more in this series.

  • reanalyst

    I liked the movie (it was hilarious), but I had some of the same problems with it that pissant brings up. I related strongly to Burt and Verona's search, but I felt cheated in the end because they had an amazing fallback option which was revealed at the end. I simply can't figure out whey they wouldn't have gone there first! Wouldn't it be great if all of us searching for place could in the end just say "I guess I'll go live in my family's old beautiful, idyllic, home place?"

  • E-Money

    Beautifully written. There are so many movies like this in my life. The newest, believe it or not, is The Muppets.

  • Captain_Tuttle

    I adore this movie. I watched it from a different perspective, though. I was just about six months shy of turning 40, with a 2 year old, living in a place I didn't want to be (still am, working on getting out). But I still identified with Bert and Verona. For me, the concept of home did not become important until I had the tyke. Ever since, I have wanted to find a place that is good enough for him.

  • lowercase_ryan

    you made me tear up. Congratulations and great job with this piece.

  • I am ecstatic about this series; what an amazing opportunity to share our inner-most selves.
    Did that sound lame? I think it sounded lame. I couldn't help it, Dan's writing got me all dewey-eyed.

  • Pinky McLadybits

    I absolutely adore this movie. The Husband and I got pregnant unexpectedly and we were trying to figure out what sort of parents we would be and where we wanted to make a life with this new family unit we had created. Like Burt and Verona, we knew what we didn't want to do, but we were unsure about what we did want to do and what we realistically could do. Alas, we didn't have people to visit in order to discern our "perfect" place, but we managed to find it on our own. Just like Burt and Verona.

  • pissant

    Burt and Verona were fine, but they spent most of the movie interacting with one unlikeable-and-over-the-top character after another. Even the couple in Toronto fucked it up in that diner scene with the waffles or pancakes or whatever. I remember syrup and schmaltz in equal amounts. I was 26 and going through a similarly uncertain time in my life when I saw that film, but the movie was full of so many unrealistic and unlikeable characters that I couldn't really identify with it in any meaningful way.

  • VK

    I was the same age as you when this came out, and it coincided with a huge transition in my life—moving from Boston to Austin and leaving behind the love of my life. The film had strangely calming effect.

    PS: Vendela Vida, xoxo

  • Tinkerville

    Really excited for this new series. I didn't fall in love with this movie the first time I saw it but it's grown on me since then. Lovely job as always, Dan.

  • This was a lovely piece, Dan. Thanks for sharing with us.

    I remember crying at the end of this movie because I so identified with that yearning to find our home, a place for my husband and myself to call our own. This remains one of my favorite movies.

  • Martin

    Agreed x1000. This movie moved me deeply. I loved it.

  • Internet Magpie

    I love this. I'm so excited for this series.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I loved this movie and was stunned when it wasn't being lauded from the roof tops.

  • Lemon_Poundcake

    Me too!

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