Dave Eggers became a literary superstar with his Pulitzer Prize-nominated memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a bittersweet story detailing the ups and downs of raising his younger brother after their parents died. With his wife, Eggers co-wrote the script for Away We Go, and, like his most successful book, the movie delivers a powerful emotional experience, all while pulling at your heartstrings -- and making you laugh -- in a very low-key style.
The movie stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Burt and Verona, an unmarried but deeply committed couple expecting their first child. When Burt's parents -- who they were relying on for help with the baby -- decide to move overseas, the expectant parents realize with some relief that they can now live wherever they want. So they decide to travel the country, visiting family and friends in different cities, in order to find a place that satisfies both their practical needs and their bohemian spirits.
Despite the premise, this movie isn't a travelogue. Sure, our protagonists visit Tuscan, Montreal, and Phoenix, but director Sam Mendes and company are more interested in exploring emotional landscapes than physical ones. With each stop on their trip, our heroes see how their hosts -- models of hilariously bad parenting -- grapple with the overwhelming responsibilities of family life. These uproarious visits leave the expectant couple with a clearer understanding of how they don't want to raise their child.
But even when Burt and Verona finally discover worthy parenting role models, they learn it won't be all smiles and jokes -- a lesson driven home when they go to see old friends in Montreal who have adopted a bunch of kids. Tom and Munch (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) have built a happy, functional, and loving family environment, but when the four adults head out for a night of dinner and dancing, Burt and Verona learn how much pain sits just under the surface of their friends' seeming contentment. Mendes unveils the depth of that pain in a heartbreaking scene where the foursome ends up at a sort-of pseudo-karaoke bar where people get up on-stage and dance to the song of their choice. As Tom tells Burt a devastating story about Munch's inability to conceive, she performs a slow solo dance set exquisitely (by music supervisor Randall Poster) to the Velvet Underground's haunting, little-known "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'." If you were in that bar and had no idea who this woman was, you might find her swaying movements kind of alluring, but we know it's an expression of sadness. The entire Montreal sequence certainly benefits from some incredibly moving writing and acting, but it's the cinematic poetry -- the combination of words and images and music -- that delivers an emotional wallop. It's the first time you realize how deeply the film gets under your skin.
Like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine, Away We Go is a small film, the kind of gem that's easy to crush with hype or overpraise. But, the fact is that few movies deal with feelings this profound with as much restraint as Mendes and his crew display here. Everything about the movie -- from Ellen Kuras' beautiful, understated cinematography to the subtle, engrossing lead performances by Krasinski and Rudolph -- is designed to sneak up on you emotionally, leaving you deeply touched, even though you'll never see it coming. And that's a good thing: it makes the film get better and better as it goes along, and continue improving the more you think about it.