Away We Go … to the Edinburgh Film Festival!

Away We Go has a trailer, and the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival has an opening film. In a happy coincidence, that opening film is Away We Go.

Sam Mendes‘ follow-up to Revolutionary Road has been attracting plenty of notice because a) it won’t be as heavy going as Revolutionary Road and b) it’s written by husband and wife Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The film is a road movie, with couple John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph trying to find some place to raise their first-born, and discovering a little bit of America on the way.

“I was last in Edinburgh in 1987 at the Fringe, and most nights the cast outnumbered the audience,” Mendes said. “So I’m really looking forward to returning–hopefully to a full house.”

“Are we screw-ups?” wonders Maya Rudolph, indicating that this is one couple who, even in their early thirties, feel ready to find themselves. Then mom and dad gleefully reveal that they’re off to Belgium, deaf to the news that their grandchild is due in a few months. That’s the cue for the road trip. On the way, Krasinski and Rudolph meet up with two couples with children. Allison Janney is cheerfully blabby, burping out bubbles of suburban cynicism; her mute husband Jim Gaffigan is an albino punching bag.

The sequences with Maggie Gyllenhaal and her partner are shorter and less sharp. Dressed in a poncho, Gyllenhaal raises her kids by letting them riot. She also channels Catherine Keener‘s formula for leavening self-absorption with earthy sexiness. In the time-honored tradition of the road film, our heroes measure their sense of failure against the tableaus played out before them. It’s a pilgrim’s progress.

Mendes, on the other hand, is channeling all kinds of things. The British director isn’t part of the New Wave of American cinema, but he’s studied them pretty closely. The trailer alone contains numerous elements which recall the films of Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Zach Braff, Spike Jonze, and Jason Reitman. The credits of the film ape the cartoon line drawings of Juno, and Jeff Bridges hasn’t even shaved the beard he grew for The Squid and the Whale.

The rest of the casting is a lot cannier. With the exception of Gyllenhaal, most of the actors known for their TV roles. Their comfort with small-screen parts creates a pleasing uneasiness when they’re in the frame. Whether it’s Janney with The West Wing or Rudolph with SNL, they’re also used to playing with ensembles. That will hopefully make for nice games of give-and-take.

One of the most disorienting things about the trailer is the mise-en-scene. The only indication that this story happens in the here and now are Krasinski’s iPod headphones, a bright red stroller and a pint-sized tub of ice cream. Even the stroller is modest by contemporary standards. The facial hair and the secondhand clothes convey a sense of shabby chic that seems more in keeping with the Seventies than the Noughties. Why?

Nostalgia for the decade of the characters’ youth permeates the trailer. Somebody ought to closely look at the cinematography of the last five years or so and determine how often DPs have shot into the sun. Its rays stream through airplane windows and backlight Gyllenhaal and her husband so that they’re just silhouettes. (We actually thought she was Keener for a minute, maybe stopping by in-between miniature art shows in Synecdoche, New York)

This wouldn’t seem so remarkable if a similar motif wasn’t found in the trailer for the Spike Jonze-Dave Eggers’ Where the Wild Things Are. It’s like the sun’s rays have replaced the gold filters Spielberg would use to suggest the past. The sunlight in this film always appears to be failing, suggesting an end to things rather than a beginning. Maybe the jollity of the title is a false one. Instead of away we go, we’re nearly there.

Mendes obsesses over the look of his films. Although this film appears less mannered than past efforts, even an offhand scene has something special about it. Watch the airport section again and see how the yellows of the signs pop out of the drab colors, nicely rhyming with Gaffigan’s hat. The image of Krasinki and Rudolph on the moving walkway is yet another quotation, this time to The Graduate and by extension, at least for Away We Go, Braff’s Garden State.

The soundtrack, on the other hand, creates a wistful mood through gentle folk music, as Anderson did in Rushmore and has done ever since. We guessed it might be a John Martyn outtake, but in fact the song is Alexi Murdoch‘s “All of My Days.” Reitman rubber-stamped Juno with the naive acoustics of Kimya Dawson and Mateo Messina. Music from the film rarely appears in the trailer itself. Indeed, it’s usually used to help remind us that this film is going to be much like others that we have enjoyed. Here the folk song feels jarring, highlighting the synthetic nature of the enterprise.

It might be that Mendes’ apartness is what will make Away We Go so good. Is the Brit really interested in a story about a young couple, their journey and their child? Or is he asking himself where American film is right now, and how accurately it reflects the lives of the audience it’s aimed at? With Away We Go, Mendes has synthesized gestures by directors from a younger generation. In doing so, he quesions those gestures’ very sincerity. Like Juno, this film also concerns a baby. Away We Go plays out as if it’s asking what kind of culture this child will be born into. It’s a movie for Jonah, who will be born in the year 2009.

Away We Go‘s production was designed by Jess Gonchor, who worked on the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras photographed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, although lately she has worked on documentaries by Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. Editor Sarah Flack has long-time associations with Steven Soderbergh and Sofia Coppola. Sound editing supervisor Paul Hsu has worked on Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.

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One Response to “Away We Go … to the Edinburgh Film Festival!”

  1. DJ Steve Says:

    Great rundown! I just checked it out today, my review is up here. Let me know what you think

    http://liftingfogblog.com/2009/06/15/away-we-go-is-a-great-example-of-insightful-indie-film/

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