It's tough to grow up. Particularly when you're already 34 years old.
Burt and Verona are long past puberty. They've got jobs, their own ramshackle place and each other—which, for them, means they're living passably adult-like lives. But when Verona gets pregnant the couple must come to grips with a grave, important reality: When you're caring for a child, you can no longer be quite so childlike yourself.
So the two begin a halting progression through a strangely unfamiliar world—a place where home isn't as much a collection of heated sticks and bricks, but an ideal filled with hugs and bedtime stories and laughter and song. They want to give their child a home. And they don't quite know how to go about it.
Burt and Verona won't get any help from their parents. Verona's folks are dead and Burt's are planning to move to Belgium a month before their grandbaby is born. Set adrift and six months pregnant, the thirtysomethings proceed to hopscotch across North America, exploring Miami and Montreal, Phoenix and Tucson in a quest to find the perfect home for their little girl. Along the way, they're exploring the ideal of home, too: What makes a home? What makes a parent? And does what you do make a difference?
Burt and Verona love each other and, though they've never taken formal vows to cement their relationship, they're clearly in it 'til death do they part. Moreover, they care deeply for their in utero child. Burt takes up knot-tying and whittling (which he calls "cobbling") so he can teach these skills of yore to his soon-to-arrive daughter. He fantasizes that she'll have a carefree, outdoorsy childhood—a little like Huck Finn (forgetting for the moment, apparently, that Huck had a pretty horrible home life himself). Burt's commitment to their child is such that he figures the only thing that would change it would be a mind-scrambling blow to the head from falling construction equipment: When Burt voices that particular concern to Verona, she gently suggests he stay away from building sites.
Frankly, it looks like both Burt and Verona have the makings to be pretty good parents. They put on an impromptu puppet shows for a friend's child, who Verona later sings to sleep. You're going to be a great mom," Verona's sister, Grace, says. "Like our mom." Burt allows himself to be "captured" by a group of kids who take him as their play prisoner.
Along with Burt and Verona, we learn a thing or two about being good parents in Away We Go by watching both good ones and very, very bad ones. The latter group includes a mom in Phoenix who makes scads of crudely derogatory and sexual remarks about her children—while they're within earshot—claiming adults' talk is just "white noise" to them. (The movie insists that the children do hear, of course.) Also bombastically bad is a mom in Madison, Wis., who takes things to the other extreme, insisting that families should be knitted together so tightly that not even the parents' sexual rendezvous should be hidden from their children.
Then the hapless couple finally visits a functional family in Montreal, and Verona tells Burt that this is the kind of family she wants to have. The house is filled with happy and well-adjusted adopted children—some of whom we see singing along with The Sound of Music. When Burt asks whether the kids are old enough to understand the Nazis in the film, the father says they actually "skip the Nazis," reasoning that he wants his kids to just enjoy the movie (and life) as much as they can while they can: There will be time enough for Nazis later, he says.
In this story, miscarried children are mourned and given the same status of born children who die. "We watch these babies grow in them," a husband tells Burt about how helpless it feels to watch his wife suffer through her fifth miscarriage. "[And then] they fade. And you don't know if she's supposed to name them or bury them."
Equally significant is a moving monologue delivered by Burt's brother after his wife runs away, leaving him alone with his grade school-age daughter. In it he ponders the new path his little girl is now destined to walk because she doesn't have a mother any longer. Nobody's preaching any sermons here or weighing in on hot political issues. The man is just stating the obvious: Two parents are what's really and truly best when it comes to raising well-balanced children.
When Burt's dad offers a mealtime blessing to the "Almighty Food Gatherer," Burt and Verona stare at him incredulously. Later, Burt tells Grace that Tucson is like an oven: "It's almost like God's trying to melt us all down," he intones. "Make something better." When Grace responds that Burt sounds like he's from the Stone Age, Burt says he got it from the Bible, adding "QED"—Latin for "thus it is proven." We see a statue of the Buddha in a college office.
The film opens with an intimately intense—and highly descriptive—depiction of oral sex. Critical parts are covered with a blanket, but movements and the couple's conversation dive into graphically explicit territory.
After that, audiences are subjected to a steady parade of sexually charged conversations and allusions. Burt's fascination with large breasts (and Verona's ever-growing ones) forms one of the film's running gags. And the banter about breasts expands to include some of the friends they visit, too. Lily, the verbally abusive mom, goes on a crude and extended rant about how having children ruined her breasts. All the while, Burt seems like he's trying to picture them in his mind.
Fortunately, he does the right thing and resists when the woman kisses him with inappropriate enthusiasm.
Lily says she believes her tween daughter is a lesbian, using an offensive slur to describe her and demanding that she do her "butch" walk for Burt and Verona. (The daughter silently refuses.) Lily brags, in front of her kids, that she nearly left her husband a dozen times.
Burt makes several anatomically descriptive references to Verona's private attributes, and they discuss their sex life in some detail. The sex lives of seahorses are also discussed, I might add. And Burt blurts out a line about the pleasures of oral sex to a young child.
When Burt and Verona see his "cousin" LN breast-feed her two children, the camera does too. (I've put cousin in quotes because the film hints that she's really his illegitimate sister. And I should also note that this is the woman who believes it's shameful to hide "lovemaking" from kids.)
Another couple take Burt and Verona out to an off-kilter bar with a stripper's pole on the stage: It's amateur night there, and the wife dances lithely but sadly around the pole as her husband watches, telling Burt that his wife had another miscarriage just a few days earlier. For her, the dance seems to be a strange form of grieving. Afterwards, as the men in the audience applaud, she collapses in her husband's arms and hugs him hard—an embrace filled with sorrow and the need for consolation.
A child blurts out that he tried to smother his baby sister with a pillow, and that he plans to try again.
Crude or Profane Language
When Verona frets that her baby's heart rate is slower than it should be, she suggests that she and Burt should argue more to pump up all of their hearts. From then on, Burt sometimes good-naturedly shouts curses at Verona—including some extreme putdowns that revolve around sexual anatomy and oral sex. The f-word is interjected nearly 20 times, the s-word another seven. God's name is misused more than a dozen times; five or six times it's paired with "d--n." Jesus' name is abused three times. Milder profanities include "a--," "h---" and "p---ed").
Drug and Alcohol Content
The drinks flow freely at every pit stop along this cinematic road trip. Verona seems to avoid the stuff, but everybody else gulps down beer, wine, mixed drinks, etc. Burt appears to be visibly inebriated at one juncture, looking through a pair of bar glasses as someone suggests they get something to eat.
Burt doesn't just accidentally mention Huckleberry Finn as he romanticizes his budding family's future. No, Away We Go takes a few cues from Samuel Clemens' classic, and ends on the banks of what appears to be the mighty Mississip—the very river on which Huck and Jim found their own sense of home.
Like Huck and Jim, Burt and Verona sail through this film, finding home only when they're alone. Wherever they stop, they encounter pain and dysfunction. A mother who blithely insults her children as they sit five feet away, stone-faced. A couple so immersed in new-age parenting techniques they've lost all sense of real-world reason. A father trying to figure out how to tell his daughter that Mom took off and isn't coming back. A picture-perfect family suffering through the unspeakable anguish of repeated miscarriages.
The message at each stop, though, rarely wavers: Parents make a difference in their children's lives—one way or another.
"You have to be so much better than you ever thought," says one mother.
Reaction to Sam Mendes' film, so far, has been mixed. Some critics have seen it as a sweet, funny lark. Others argue that it flogs traditional American values—obscuring the beating with a gauze of treacly sentimentality.
"To observe that they [Burt and Verona] inhabit no recognizable American social reality is only to say that this is a film by Sam Mendes, a literary tourist from Britain who has missed the point every time he has crossed the ocean," writes A.O. Scott of The New York Times. "The vague, secondhand ideas about the blight of the suburbs that sloshed around American Beauty and Revolutionary Road are now complemented by an equally incoherent set of notions about the open road, the pioneer spirit and the idealism of youth."
The entertainment website ropeofsilicon.com ran an inconclusive editorial under the headline, "Do Sam Mendes's Films Attack the State of American Marriage?" And, indeed, an argument can be made as such: In Away We Go, the film's protagonists don't get married (though, in truth, Burt really wants to, and it's fear and sadness that prevents Verona from saying yes, not moral ineptitude or political crusading), while the dysfunctional couples they meet all wear bands around their fingers.
Then again, Mendes is himself a married man: He wed Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet in 2003, and the two have a son, Joe. Earlier this summer, as he was directing Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale for the stage in London, he said his newfound experience as a parent is critical in how he sees the play.
"I now know what it feels like to hold a baby, your own child, in your arms," he told the Times Online. "It makes a huge difference and you direct The Winter's Tale in particular differently."
The same feelings seem to apply to Away We Go, which features children galore—some happy, some hurting, some too young to know for sure. All, Mendes suggests, are a bit helpless as their parents slowly, often unwittingly, craft them into the people they'll become—sometimes by leaving them altogether. The little girl whose mother ran out on her puts on a brave face during the day. But when Verona tucks her in for the night, we can see the fear and sorrow in her eyes.
"That girl in there will always be that little girl without a mom," Dad tells Burt.
No, the critics who call this a sweet lark miss the mark. This is dark, heartbreaking stuff. Away We Go trots out pain and tries to primp it with pink bows and syrup. It distracts our attention with sex and raunch. But the pain we feel in these children's situations, the pain we see on their faces, lingers after the credits fade.
And then it ends with ... hope. And that's something Mendes is not well-known for crafting.