Written by Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida
Away We Go is a pleasant enough road trip story. It follows Burt and Verona, soon-to-be parents who set out on a journey to figure out where they should live next. Burt is 33, and Verona is 34. They are adults but young enough to succumb to a teenager’s level of self-doubt and vast uncertainty. Their jobs are malleable and not ideal, but that’s not much of a concern. They’re unmarried, but at no point do they show signs of breaking up. They are relatively poor, but money never really seems to be an issue. Instead they are just curious, a bit listless, remorseful for something they may never have had, and they are hyper focused on being good parents.
So it’s a nice goal, and these characters are fun to follow around for 90 or so pages. The script is at its best in the small moments shared between them, when it feels like there is no narrative agenda. Their banter reads organically, and I enjoyed that they simply felt real rather than like contrived characters meant to go their separate ways until they realized they still love each other.
Away We Go has modest ambitions in this regard, concerned with real, human fears and desires, but it’s almost too mundane to be made into a movie. Because I’d guess that the writers knew the story was so humble, the script is filled with broad, frustrating characters who seem only to exist as a form of slapstick comedy.
Verona telegraphs their journey before they embark on it. They will head to Phoenix to visit her old boss Lily and husband Lowell. Then they will visit her sister, Grace, who also happens to live in Phoenix. After that they will head to Madison, Wisconsin where Burt has a job interview for an insurance company with slightly better commission and where they will stay with Burt’s de facto cousin, LN. Then they will jump up to Montreal to see a couple of old college friends.
Each of these visits acts as a nice sequence break, slicing up the story into neat chunks which make the narrative progress easier to analyze. With each visit comes some new perspective, and each friend or relative represents something of what Burt and Verona fear or hope to become.
Lily and Lowell are the bored, middle-aged parents. She’s a bit neurotic, and he’s a jaded drunk who drags their kids to the race track. Both show little interest in their children, and the effect they have on Burt and Verona might register a little more with the reader if the characters didn’t feel loaded with cliches. Their attitudes shock our protagonists to some degree, but from the moment we meet them it feels natural to what we’ve seen in other comedies. Still, they’re not quite funny or amusing, really just a bit of a tough hang.
Then they drop by Grace, a sweet, nuanced character who shares a wonderful, quiet moment with Verona. Grace is still looking to settle down, and she points out to Verona how lucky she and Burt are. It’s also at this moment in the script that Grace presses Verona a little more on information about their parents. They died young, when Grace in particular was just a child, and Verona remains reluctant to speak of them. We don’t know why, and neither does Burt. This resistance is symbolic, reflecting fears Verona holds about her own impending motherhood.
Then it’s back to the slapstick as the couple makes their way to Madison. There they meet Lily and Lowell’s complete opposites, Burt’s cousin LN and her husband Roderick. They are a parody of new agey parents. LN breastfeeds her four year old, and they sleep with their children in a giant bed, express disgust towards strollers and roll their eyes at Burt and Verona’s plans for their child.
Like with Lily and Lowell, LN and Roderick represent another fear held by our hero couple, that they could smother their child. Each married couple Burt and Verona have come across are incredibly flawed, but again they feel underdeveloped, just two-dimensional characters who hang around for comedy. But again they aren’t funny, just frustrating.
Finally Burt and Verona make it to Montreal to stay with Tom and Munch, friends of theirs from college. They have a large family of adopted children, and because this married couple is an example of how parenting can be done right, the story flows with a fully realized sense of realism. The story is charming and slightly amusing when the comedy doesn’t feel forced. We learn that Tom and Munch have trouble conceiving, and like with the other human moment between Verona and Grace, this insight is meant to make Burt and Verona appreciate how fragile life and pregnancy is.
Burt’s brother, Courteney, then calls to tell him that his wife left him and their 8 year-old daughter, Annabelle. They head to Miami, and this sequence all feels maybe a little too much for the story. Burt expresses disgust that Helena, whom he never liked in the first place, could just dip out on her daughter like that, and in this sequence he and Verona will share their emotional climax. They express their greatest fears but then quickly come to a resolution that all they can do is their best for their own child.
In response to this emotional catharsis, Verona finally opens up about her childhood, and they decide where to live, at Verona’s childhood home in South Carolina.
There were several moments that got to me in Away We Go. They weren’t overt tearjerkers or a moment of one character’s deserved comeuppance. Instead it was just sweet and reassuring to read about characters becoming parents who still grapple with uncertainty. It’s a nice reminder that some things are never quite figured out, and the broader, frustrating characters of Away We Go are the people who act as though they do have the answers.
Two of these characters are Burt’s parents, Jerry and Gloria, whose decision to move to Belgium is the impetus for Burt and Verona’s road trip. Burt and Verona have a close relationship with the two if only because of their geographical proximity. We anticipate there may be some kind of arc between the two couples, but Jerry and Gloria only hang around for a scene or two before they’re gone.
Every side character ducks in for a while before departing the narrative, and the only consistency is Burt and Verona. That’s certainly okay, they’re the only characters we care about, but this means the only meaning of a given sequence is the effect it has on our central couple. And Burt and Verona are quite unfazed by everything. Even as they express doubt and frustration, the stakes remain low. We know they’re not breaking up, their jobs are safe, and with each troubled encounter they can simply move onto the next city.
Another frustrating aspect to this type of story construction is that many of the side characters are so broad that what we need to takeaway from 10-15 minutes of the movie’s runtime can be understood in a quarter of the time. We get the idea right away, but then we’re forced to stick around with characters there is no business investing time in.
The emotional catharsis too feels a little too neat and unsatisfactory. Again, I appreciate what this story is about, but there isn’t much of an arc to the journey. Burt and Verona are already full of doubt, and by the end they accept that it’s okay to have such doubt. They will push through. Still they seem much the same as they were at the start, only now they live in a different place. Considering we weren’t much tied to their first home, this change in scenery has little impact on the audience.
The change of scenery, of course, is more symbolic, meant to show that Verona has opened up and accept something about her own childhood. Her initial refusal to acknowledge her past, teased out throughout the story, feels formulaic, something that is only touched on because we know she will discuss it in act 3.
Another story with a similar ‘plot’ construction is Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. In it a sad, older man (Bill Murray) receives a note that could be from any of several former lovers. He is then persuaded by a friend to set out on a journey to figure out who left the note. This brings him to many different settings, introducing him to vivid side characters who only hang around the story for a short time.
The difference is that the Murray character is working to solve a mystery, and in fact his ambivalence towards that mystery only makes him all the more intriguing. Well, to be fair I’m a fan of Jarmusch’s style. They have the tone of Wes Anderson’s movies but without the obvious comedy. So much of the appeal is what’s left unsaid, and in the case of Broken Flowers, there is a great deal of dark comedy drawn from the utter tragedy that seems to have become the lives of the people we meet. They are so sad but almost boringly so, like somewhere along the lines they retreated away from life and deep into themselves. It’s a silent suffering, invisible to the naked eye, but we (and Bill Murray) certainly see it. Murray’s character himself is quite sad, but he seems almost amused by how sad others are. The movie is so sad that it’s funny.
Still, in Broken Flowers the characters feel human, even the most flawed of them. Their defining characteristics come from a real place, and you can see how insecurity or anger may have turned them into who they are onscreen. The characters feel taken from our shared experience of the world whereas some of the characters in Away We Go are pulled from a sitcom and stuck in a world otherwise presented as our own.
This effect serves to alienate these characters from us as well as Burt and Verona, but more than anything I felt alienated from the story, as if betrayed (to be melodramatic) by what the story claims to be. This isn’t a human, character study as much as a condemnation of self-righteousness and an indictment of those who are wrong.
Now that I think about it, the story feels written from the perspective of someone as confident and flawed as the characters it attempts to mock. Burt and Verona are special, delicate, human characters but more because of how they contrast with the people around them. They are sympathetic heroes, partially because they try their best, and partially because they never seem like the type to mock the people they come across, even when they deserve mocking (there is one exception to this, LN and Roderick, simply because they are more aggressively rude to Burt and Verona).
So I’m taking too long to write all this out, but I guess I really appreciate Burt and Verona and what the story aims to do, but I’m less enamored with the way it does those things. The story wants to tell us how good and wholesome some people can be by showing how bad and disturbing other people are. It feels like a murky message.
I read a hard copy of this script, and included in it was the original ending to the story. In an author’s note, we’re told that the story was conceived of during the height of the Iraq war and post-9/11 fear mongering. The original conclusion certainly reflects this, but it’s much too on the nose and not one with the rest of the story. What this does clarify is all of the Iraq War allusions during the script. The scene descriptions refers to soldiers, news of the war on tv, etc. None of it really made sense at the time, and with this conclusion re-written, it doesn’t make sense as to why these mentions remained in the script.
In the original ending, our heroes decide to move to Costa Rica because they are fed up with America. The author’s note indicates that when the movie went into production, there was a feeling of hope (this being 2008 or 2009) that contrasted with the state of affairs when the story was first written. The sense of hope makes the story much more pleasant, but the scathing-nature in which the story was originally written is still there as well.
Up Next: Beatriz at Dinner (2017), Primal Fear (1996), Through a Glass Darkly (1966)