Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) don't quite have things figured out yet. I mean, they pretty much have each other pegged, enjoying a marriage-less relationship, keeping each other warm on those cold Colorado nights, and they know that they want to bring a kid into this world -- well, want to or not, the baby's coming, and so they'll keep it warm as well.
Their parents won't be of much help. After all, his (Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) are making plans to take off for Europe just before the baby's due, a trip years in the making and selfish as all get out, while hers passed away some time back. So Burt and Verona decide to visit other family and friends, looking for people they can depend on in places they could grow up in, let alone grow old in -- looking for a place that might help them figure out together the whys and hows of keeping it all together. By plane and train and automobile, Burt and Verona traverse the span of North America, and their road trip helps director Sam Mendes break out of the suburbs from which he's milked so much malaise. Away We Go is his fifth feature in ten years, and after American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, it's refreshing to see him give due notice to a couple whose spark hasn't had the chance to be smothered yet, and might grow even brighter still. The willfully woolly screenplay by real-life couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida has given him cause to swap out some key crew -- hello, cinematographer Ellen Kuras! goodbye, composer Thomas Newman! -- in favor of a warmer, significantly less stately approach. If hard-pressed, one could qualify this as something like the journey from Little Miss Sunshine mellowed out by the home-hunting likes of Garden State -- singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch's contributions to the soundtrack tend to evoke the latter film's emphasis on drowsy vocals and a quiet guitar -- but it is influenced by and indebted to neither, working well within its own vacuum of admittedly indie surfaces and the emotional currents that run beneath.
While the man behind the camera has grown somewhat louder, his leads before the camera find themselves giving low-key a good name after building up considerable reputations on TV comedy as anything but. Krasinski ("The Office") and Rudolph ("Saturday Night Live") progress from being the center of the storm around which Alison Janney's high-strung colleague and Maggie Gyllenhaal's hippie-dippie pal wreak havoc on their own offspring to being the calm before it when brothers (like Paul Schneider) and broheims (like Chris Messina) alike seem to be either falling apart or coming close to it. These episodic encounters each help shape Burt and Verona's considerations, and Krasinski and Rudolph move the movie from the unexpectedly hilarious (what that little boy says in the hotel lobby) to the unexpectedly heartbreaking (what that grown man says in the strip club) with an unexpected measure of grace. In an era where on-screen romance tends to be driven by friction and frustration first and foremost, their ineffable harmony is a minor godsend.
The beauty of Away We Go is that it's barely about the baby when everything's said and done. There is no water-breaking wackiness, nor any breast-feeding gags, and even if the occasional quirk threatens to disassociate it from the real world (who staples an itinerary to a jacket, honestly?), its ideas and ideals couldn't be more true to life. It's a sincere story about making it, and making it work on your own terms, and defining what those terms might be, that nails the melancholy state of being both unsure about living in this world and essentially hopeful about it. It's easily the most tender film that Sam Mendes has done to date, and it's easily among the very best films that the year has offered so far.