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Away We Go (2009)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Why the film is worth your time

With light-hearted seriousness, Away We Go romps us through a young couple’s search for life. Or, actually, their search is for a place to live, but of course there’s always a

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

How the film enriched and changed me

The love at the center of Away We Go is a beautiful thing to see, particularly because of how Burt & Verona tolerate each other, and it’s their relationship that reaches out and grabs me from the film. It makes me want all the more to be the kind of person who lives the simply harmony and commitment that Burt & Verona have. Unlike a typical Hollywood film, they’re not a glamorous couple. There’s no win-love-over-all-odds epic battle, no big prove-you-love-me confrontation. There’s no teary-eyed reconciliation or fiery-passionate scene of love-making. There’s just a fun and solid (and quirky) couple searching and living beautifully together. It’s engaging and attractive, and it made me ask myself whether I’m able to live that way.

There’s a telling arc to way Burt and Verona’s search in Away We Go begins and ends. From the opening — a quite atypical sex scene, and particularly atypical because of its lightness and fun — we see their emotional intimacy and trust and start to feel their simple joy. When they learn of their developing baby, they want to bring their parents in on their joy, and especially they need to lean on parents for help. But that means only Burt’s parents, since Verona’s are dead. Burt’s folks act a surface-level excitement about the baby, but really they feel little or no attachment to family. Since his parents are leaving them, Burt & Verona have nothing tying them down, so they launch off to find the right home. In a sense, at the end of their search they wind up living with the dead parents (in their house, anyway).

This is a major reversal: They find that their relationship with the dead parents is far more rich and alive than their relationship with the living parents. Where they thought they would be leaning heavily on the living parents, it is much more the dead parents they wind up leaning on. In various other ways as they progress through their odyssey, they see more clearly the difference between shallowness and depth in life and love.

Perhaps unfairly but nonetheless to good effect, the film overplays the “negative” characters (Burt’s parents, Lily & Lowell, the performance mom, and LN & Rod) and plays other characters normally (Grace, Munch & Tom, Courtney). The overplaying casts the characters as archetypes — a sort of pure form of the ills they portray — which helps us to ask whether we might be kind of like these negative characters. We can more easily point to them and say, “Well, I’m not that bad, but I guess I do do some of that.”

The odyssey

Before visiting Burt’s parents, Verona says to Grace that she’s glad they are near because Burt & Verona will need to lean heavily on them. So, the sting is all the greater when Burt’s parents seem to be interested in the baby
(she listens for the heartbeat, he wants to see sonogram pics), but instead they've made other plans. More than that, they seem incredulous as to why Burt & Verona would see this as any issue. His parents' shallow self-centeredness shows in other ways: Their excitement at renting the house after just having told Burt & Verona that they might get to have it, his pride in the sculpture and his support of indigenous peoples even though he doesn't know what the word is. It turns out that they won't be there for Burt & Verona, but it's more than just "babies aren't their thing." Their cares in the world don't really get beyond themselves.

Verona is the one to realize that their roots have been severed, that they need to find new roots, and that they're now free to do so. She walks Burt through it, loosening him from hidden assumptions about how their lives must be. "But we live here," Burt says, not at first understanding. "But the only reason we're here is because your parents are here," Verona replies. Uncovering hidden assumptions is what's behind the hardest things they learn in their odyssey.

Away to Phoenix

In Phoenix, Lily and Lowell embody another form of self-centered parents, focused on being social and fashionable. Lily's attitude is that the kids are messed up, we're all messed up, so why worry about it. Lowell is fashionably down on everything, which implies that he thinks himself above it all. Lily is fashionably open about sexuality, even yelling across the racetrack stands about her breasts. They wonder why they are shunned socially, completely blind to their unsocial ways.

But it's their interaction with their children that hurts the most to watch. Since, for Lily, the kids are already messed up, it's fair game to have fun with them, alternately joking about their bodies
and talking in front of them as if they aren't there, thinking that the kids are obliviously in their own worlds. It doesn't occur to Lily that the kids might be ignoring her because she's obnoxious or that she might be playing a large part in messing them up. Neither she nor Lowell notice when the kids' heads turn at Lily announcing that she's thought of leaving and, even more scary, neither of them notice when, in the parking lot, Ashley stops to chat with older men in a truck.

Back at the motel pool, reflecting on their time with Lily & Lowell, Burt asks whether Verona agreed with them. She immediately and emphatically says, "No!" — then she stops to ask him what, specifically, he was referring to. She found nothing worthy of agreement in Lily & Lowell's approach to life and parenting. To the contrary, she seemed disgusted by it.

Away to Tucson

In Tucson, their time with Verona's sister, Grace, builds important foundations for their search. Burt & Verona help Grace to see that romantic love is not about whether the other fits your vision of perfection, but about reaching to see goodness in the other. We learn some of the ways in which Verona and Grace had very good parents, and we experience the longing and remembering that keeps their parents alive in their hearts. And we get the humorous bit about the performance mom pedantically walking the quite aptly named Beckett through his lessons. Samuel Beckett was known in part for his Theatre of the Absurd writings. Although Beckett's mom's intentions are good, her treatment of him is condescending and perfunctory. Beckett's reaction shows a breakdown in communication typical of the Theatre of the Absurd.

Grace and Verona get on quite well, and it's not immediately clear in the film why Tucson doesn't get more consideration as a possible home. Perhaps it's just too hot. Still, it is time to move on — they must get to Madison for Burt's interview — and their time in Tucson established the beauty of Verona and Grace's parents and the memories tied to the old family home.

Away to Madison

In Madison, LN & Roderick are the outlandish embodiment of shallow acceptance of all the latest in psychological and mystical theories and trends — and the film's choice of a university environment here is appropriate. There's a certain sense to some of the ideas, it's just that they are not thought through. Yes it's good to hold our children close — physical touch is critical to well-being. I never thought of it before, but for good or ill, strollers do impose a certain separation. But what do we do with these observations? LN takes them so far as inviting anyone in to her breast-feeding intimacy — she had no knowledge of who was knocking at her office door when she said, "Come in." Perhaps most to be questioned, she and Rod take it so far as full-open sex in front of their children (and young children at that, if it makes any difference).

As the time with LN & Rod carries on, we see the insularity and thinness of their thinking. It's okay for Rod to (mis)diagnose himself with an Electra complex (and LN feels oh so sad for the way he was victimized), but he's offended that Verona would help him by correcting simple facts. LN thinks that the pain of having a baby gives her a confident and deep understanding of war. Rod thinks it's beneath him to work for a living, and he's quick to assure Wolfie that he won't have to.

The tone at dinner — as is the tone for elitist thinking more generally — is that LN & Rod find themselves to be simply better and to have everything figured out compared to the lowly and misguided Burt & Verona. Burt's reaction is not loving, but at least it's understandable. One might argue that, in some cases, actions like Burt's might just wake someone up, but there's no indication in the film that Burt is doing anything other than a frustrated blow-up.

Away to Montreal

Phoenix showed the hollowness of self-centered, socialite parenting. Madison showed (to extreme) how sophisticated and trendy academic thinking can lead (not always leads) to being disconnected from common sense and simple caring.
In Montreal, we start with the simplicity of the (pre-war) von Trapp family.

This is the best stop on their journey, but it's also the start of the hardest part of their journey. The wonderful family love between Tom & Munch and their children reverses a common thought: It is not dependent on blood relations — and many, one would hope all, adopted children are loved so deeply. Yet, even with this deep bond, we also see (by its absence) the beauty of blood family ties as Tom & Munch deal with the recently renewed pain of not being able to have children naturally. To Tom's openness with their pain, Burt could have had a more supportive response, but it seems he was simply in shock, and he had no idea what to do. Remembering this scene in the film, I want to be able to get past my shock to let someone know that I share their pain and that they have a home in my heart.

Tom's dinnertime exhortation of what makes a family is simply beautiful, and bears repeating: The parents and the kids and the house are only raw ingredients, what binds these together to make a family is the love poured on: "The patience, your consideration, your better selves. Man, you just have no idea how good you can be. But you have to use all of it.
All of it...it's all those good things you have in you: The love, the wisdom, the generosity. The selflessness. The patience. Patience." Then he tells of Ibrahim being sick at 3 a.m. and puking on Katya's bed and how you'll be tired "all day, all week, all your...life." And Munch adds at the end, "You have to be so much better than you ever thought."

The love that makes a family isn't a cool new theory, it doesn't happen while we're joining the best social club, it's a higher call to get beyond ourselves. The full impact of seeing Tom & Munch's family is a lot to take in. At first, Burt eats up the syrup-love analogy, then it makes him think — his smiles turn to pensive looks as Tom continues on to describe the hard side of love. The love that exudes from their family calls deeply to Burt & Verona, and even with their pain, Burt & Verona might have stayed in Montreal if they hadn't been called away to Miami and the final stage of their odyssey.

Away to Miami

In Miami, Burt sees the havoc wreaked when his brother's wife leaves. He sees the hole created unnecessarily in Annabelle's life. He sees Courtney's difficulty coping with the responsibility ahead of him, being only a father without the feminine insight that a mom would provide for Annabelle. Still reeling from Tom & Munch, he starts to lose it, out on the trampoline at midnight calling the delinquent wife's contacts.

Verona helps Burt to put the pieces together. Yes, it's unfair that crummy parents have babies easily while great parents don't. It's unfair that a mom can just walk away from her daughter (and husband). It's unfair that her wonderful parents were taken while she was only in college. We don't have control of much, but we can do something: We can make life good for this one girl we've been given.

Verona might have cast the net a bit wider: We can do more by helping others when bad things happen. We can (as Away We Go itself does) aim to influence those around us toward getting better. But we get her point: We shouldn't let injustice around us affect the good that we ourselves can do.


Verona's memories at her childhood home begin to call out to them. They are pulled by the legacy of the kind of love Tom described at dinner in Montreal. Greeting them at the start of the driveway is the "fruit tree" legacy, which gives them a smile. Stopping in front of the house, Verona says, "I forgot how beautiful it is." And Burt concludes, "This place is perfect for us."

It's clear why Phoenix and Madison weren't home for Burt & Verona. Tucson wasn't it because moving back to the family home keeps a treasure alive for Verona and Grace; it's an investment in continuing the legacy their parent's gave them. But why not Montreal or Miami? In both places, they would have had — and been able to give — the support that they had expected from Burt's parents. Either would have been a beautiful choice.

But one story can do only so much, and the decision that Away We Go gives to Burt & Verona speaks richly of the lasting ties love builds even beyond death, the responsibility that lies with individual parents to build a loving home and family life, and that Burt & Verona's odyssey has, perhaps, increased their confidence that they can do it. But it's a quiet, heavy confidence, realizing the weight they carry, as through tears Verona says, "I hope so. I really...hope so."

The big question

Throughout the film, the question of whether Burt & Verona will be formally married is always present. As a major difference between them, it could be a large source of conflict. Yet here is one more major reversal: She is not pushing back against commitment, but rather external formality. One might call her a cynic, but you can't call her shallow in love. Seeing the superficiality and hypocrisy in the world of relationships around her, she cares only about the true locus of marriage — commitment and care — and she doesn't really get the fuss about external statements. And, she has a hard time envisioning a wedding ceremony where her parents are not there.

Although I have a stronger view of the formality than Verona does, and thus I might appeal to her on the basis of the power of signs, symbols, and public statements, her stance goes deep to realign and reinforce my commitment to true marriage.
And besides, the film does include a "wedding ceremony" — on the trampoline behind Burt's brother's house, they exchange a series of vows where each asks of the other a commitment of the heart and the other replies, "I do." Most of their vows concern their daughter, but the context of the dialog just before places mutual commitment to their daughter as a "deeper in" commitment within their commitment to each other.

I look at my own life and want the simple relational beauty that Burt & Verona have — and that Tom & Munch have. I easily complicate things with my own junk and miss it. And missing it happens often because I'm like Lily & Lowell, too self-centered and unaware of others, or like LN & Rod, simultaneously over-thinking and shallowly thinking about life and love. Away We Go helped me to see some of this and, more importantly, to feel the pain of it, which I hope will help me to get better.

  • As they are on the way to Burt's parents', the entry of the song lyrics, "I've been searching all of my days" as Verona gets out of the car, looking into the distance, tossing away her half-finished apple — She's unsettled about the future, and the lyrics and feel of the tune mark an important shift in mood of the film.
  • After Verona says, "Your pregnant girlfriend's gonna kill you," and Burt says, "Thanks, Casey," Verona's little smile and chuckle captures how she loves him, even if she doesn't always get him.
  • The first cut at the airport, where Burt & Verona are standing on the moving walkway as people in the airport scurry around them —
    although they've taken an active step to do their search, they will largely be carried along by the things they are about to encounter.
  • The multiple airplanes image against the blue building windows — it speaks of the divergent paths and possibilities on their odyssey, especially as the plane comes in from the right as one image, splits into six or more images, then resolves to one image leaving to the left, just as they will come to a resolution through their searching.
  • On the plane to Phoenix, the whole plane is still, only a couple of passengers barely move, no one talks, but compared to the others, Burt & Verona looked particularly spaced, and the bright sun blindingly shines into their window — it speaks of the momentousness of their odyssey.
  • Lowell's little line at the end of dinner: "Thanks for treating" — just one last way of showing their lack of hospitality.
  • The reassurance that Burt gives Verona after Phoenix, when Verona worries that, since no one's in love like they are, how will they make it? "What are we gonna do?" she asks. Burt's simple reassurance is, "Nothing. We're just gonna ride it out."
  • Walking toward the train, Burt saying, "I think this is better actually. This is the railroad. The romance of the rails." — combined with Verona's lack of reaction, it's one more instance of his irrepressible ability to look on the bright side and their differences in this way.
  • At the end of Tom's exhortation about marriage and family, he, with excellent acting, changes his tone subtly as he says, "And you have to be willing to make the family out of whatever you have" — we don't know why just then, but later we see the depth of his attempt to move on from Munch's miscarriage.
  • The fact that Tom's syrup analogy is done with syrup — the film here seems quite self-aware that some will view Tom's speech as sentimental syrup and miss the fact that the real truth is in all the non-syrupy elements that he uses to describe what true love really is.
  • When Tom is telling Burt of their pain in miscarriage, the camera pans to show the distance between them (usually the noise of a bar would have people sitting closer) — it reinforces the idea that Burt just doesn't know what to do or say.
  • After the title "Home," the camera is looking up to the sky, then pans down to the road ahead of Burt & Verona — it seems to say that they have found their blue skies (even if those skies have a few clouds).
  • The humility of the ending, captured in Verona's, "I hope so," combined with Burt's never-ending optimism ("This place is perfect...").
  • Many light moments and little interactions inserted throughout, a few of which are:
    • During the opening sequence, Verona saying he had promised not to use the word "co-factors," and Burt clarifying that he said he wouldn't misuse it — the pattern repeats many times throughout the film.
    • When Verona corrects Burt over the word "cobbling," at first he holds that he is right, but then they move on with no big deal — his confusion is humorous, and the bit shows their relationship easily getting past the sort of silly disagreement that many deteriorating relationships cannot.
    • Burt falling over the retaining wall just after Grace and Verona agreed that Verona was lucky to have Burt.
    • Verona asking Burt whether, in his dream, she was topless. He says yes — it shows a bit of the open zaniness of their relationship, but especially Verona's patience putting up with one of Burt's obsessions.
    • The door buzzer at Tom & Munch's place, which sets the tone for the simple crazy love in their family.
    • When Tom starts into his marriage and family analogy, he starts with two white sugar cubes saying, "Here's you two guys." Then, he throws one down, picks up a brown sugar cube and starts over — it's a wonderful, light, humorous way of recognizing Burt and Verona's mixed races.

Screenshots and dialog copyright © 2009 by the filmmakers.

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