Away We Go But We’re Still Here

Dear CF,

I’m choked up with thoughts. I’ve started five letters to you and finished none of them. This I want to fix. So much to talk about: let’s start with Away We Go, which I finally watched.

I’d forgotten that Eggers and wife wrote the script. The moment those credits flashed on the screen I understood my own reaction to the movie a little better (it varied, I will confess, between amusement, bemusement, disgust, and a few moments of genuine weepiness). Eggers. This is a movie about Eggers trying to grow up. Everywhere in this movie you trip on glimpses of that sparkly McSweeney’s preciousness that stems in large part from adults behaving as if they were younger and more vulnerable than they are. The engine driving this kind of story is the fantasy that we’re all paper flowers pretending to be strong, that there are terrible and lonely and small occasions for beauty, that we are all Young At Heart.

To his credit, I think Eggers is trying to grow. The movie is rife with self-corrections, with scenes that try to save themselves from sentimentality by laying on reality in sloppy layers. Reality! the movie announces. Not sparkly-sadness! The odd reenactment of The Sound Of Music by the adopted kids in Montreal shows exactly what this movie is trying to do: alert you to the fact that up until now you’ve only seen the part of the movie without the Nazis. But this? This is real, it promises. Cue the woman who just miscarried pole-dancing at a club. The same goes for the crazy boss in Phoenix, whose daughter spends the entire last scene (where she tries to kiss Burt) flirting with two men in a truck. There is darkness here.

But he hasn’t made it for exactly the reasons you mention: namely, it takes a sudden turn toward the censored Sound of Music ending. We end up with a tree hung with plastic fruit and a friendless couple that actually prefers it this way—a couple that started out seeking community, started out on what has to be read as a Biblical journey, Mary and Joseph in search of an inn (yes, that’s how highly our writers think of themselves—they are birthing the secular Messiah) and ended up on an island, locked away from the very world it hoped would save it from “fuckuphood.”

The movie starts with that question: “Are we fuckups?” The worry starts them off on a quest for an adulthood free of cardboard windows. That’s the working definition, “free of cardboard windows,” and it never gets refined any further. It never gets asked again, or answered, except by negation (everyone else is a fuckup too). I think you’re right, though you read it much more lovingly than I do: their final answer is the opposite of progress. No matter how delightful that house may be, it’s total regression and total retreat.

You said you found the couple “solid in ways that most movies would rather not look at,” and I found myself thinking too about how the movie tried to undemonstratively demonstrate the kind of intimacy that must (because this seems to be the nature of time and touch) border on boredom. I’m thinking of the car ride, while Verona is eating an apple (before she gets out of the car). I’m thinking of that opening sex scene, which announces exactly the kind of democratic semi-irritated sex this couple has (while, yes, stretching the limits of credulity by keeping the covers on and Verona clothed).

I liked those moments—even if the oral sex scene was a little overdone for shock value, I respect the work it did and how quickly it did it. It was unslick, not about sex at all really, and yet all about the particular brand of awkward the Burt-and-Verona couple inhabits when sex is involved and it isn’t awesome or angry. I liked Burt’s conversation with the other guy while they watched his wife pole-dance—a conversation that could never happen in an Apatow movie because it assumes that two young, relatively cool men might care seriously (and freely) about their partners’ emotional wellbeing and navigate those pretty painful waters with trepidation and concern. I actually thought that was a tremendous scene.  Had the women been present, it might easily have gone the way of Knocked Up—men expressing the right emotion because they’re performing to the ethical tyrannies of an all-female panel of judges.

I liked the scene where Burt and Verona are in bed, he’s babbling amiably about what a good dad he’s going to be, and Verona’s sudden sadness over how their island is being threatened by the very thing they created. (This would obviously be an important concern for this couple, since they have no one outside of themselves). I liked the “vows” on the trampoline.

As for the rest of it… well, the structure was unfortunate. The conceit of taking the Huckleberry Finn childhood Burt wants for their kid and mimicking it prenatally is sort of charming. There they are, sailing down the Mississippi through different zany episodes. But the episodes were so vicious, and so sad, and the lands they visit are populated by (as you so rightly say) cautionary tales!

I would have liked for them to stay in Miami. That was a spontaneous trip—it wasn’t part of their artificial quest. It had real urgency, it offered real companionship. It would have given them something besides themselves. I’d have preferred it to the fabular house dripping with Spanish moss that leaves them just as isolated as they first began, but with bigger windows (that aren’t cardboard).  The movie seemed to be attempting so much—it’s too bad that this is the only definition of adulthood we get.

A note on Verona and her plot: she doesn’t want to get married because her parents can’t be at the wedding? This was ridiculously uncompelling to me. Undertheorized. What does that have to do with anything? Is this woman who paints brain surgeries really the kind who fantasized about her daddy walking her down the aisle? I like and respect her position that “we can only really be good for this one person;” it’s an unambitious stance but I can respect it, even admire the constraints she chooses to put on their reality. But there are so many reasons not to marry—this was the one she chose? I liked her stillness so much. I wanted it to be wiser.

I wished I’d loved it more. This is such an interesting and worthwhile direction. More, please?