Saturday, February 6, 2010

Two favorites of 2009: "Away We Go" and "Where the Wild Things Are"

Think for a moment of your favorite movies about love. Pick four or five that jump to mind the most easily. Now, how many of them are about the beginnings of a relationship, the process of falling in love? Chances are, most if not all of them — right? That's what love stories are so often about, the initial moments of connection and the working out of how two people might fit together. So rarely does a love story start with the couple already together, already fitting well, and explore the growth of love upon that solid foundation. That's exactly what we have on our hands with "Away We Go."

Verona and Burt (Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski) are an established couple in their early thirties, living a more or less oddball life, working in unconventional freelance jobs and enjoying one another's company more than a pursuit of stability and nice things. They've developed a repartee I haven't seen often on screen, something that feels less like comedy playing to the audience and more like comedy playing to one another — it's a glimpse at their inside jokes, and feels more like real life and real relationship. The movie begins with the discovery that the couple is pregnant, and follows their transition from two into three, most specifically asking the questions: How do we be a family? How do we make a home?

The degree to which Verona and Burt's relationship feels real and unforced is matched by the degree to which all of their family, friends, and acquaintances are outlandish caricatures. As they seek a home and a permanent place in the world, bouncing from city to city and family to family testing the waters, we see them exposed to every stereotype out there — this disinterested parents, the earth-mother parents, the bitter and spiteful parents, the adoptive p
arents, the split parents. At first this bothered me. When you get big stars to come in a do a cameo of a broad stereotype, you end up with something intensely funny but not exactly ... real. It seemed to me like it was spoiling the movie I wanted. But by the end, I felt like it could be no other way. What we are seeing are Verona and Burt's perception of other people's parenting styles and life choices. Anything that doesn't feel right to them, that doesn't seem like the life they want, has a tinge of repulsiveness to it. This feels completely right to me, completely real. For me at least, once I've made a decision as to where I want to live, what I want to read and watch, where or how I want to worship, how I want to be a husband and father, every other choice out there just feels weird somehow. (Until, of course, I change my mind.) I don't hold different choices against people, and neither do Verona and Burt, but the process of finding yourself is a lot of trial and error, a lot of pushing away and stripping away alternate options by process of one's gut reactions. Their journey is one of these gut reactions.

What's great and unusual about this movie
is about how much Verona and Burt are on each other's side. So often a love story is about two romantic leads playing opposite one another, with the relationship between each other at stake. This is movie about two romantic leads united in opposition to a world that threatens to make them conform to something they don't want. I can't stress enough how refreshing and beautiful this is to see. I often thought that if I were ever to become a marriage counselor, my piece of advice to everyone would be this: Find something that you both agree on and believe in and then fight for it together. Be on each other's side. Believe that the roots of your life's troubles go deeper than the failures of your spouse and fight the bigger enemy, not one another. (But since that's literally the only piece of advice I have on marriage, it would be a pretty short session.) This is a movie about two people in each other's corner, and what's more — even many of the outrageous caricatures are couples who are completely on each other's side. As off-putting as they may be to Verona and Burt, they make sense to each other. We should each have an anchor, a confidante, a compatriot like that.

I discovered during the end credits that "Away We Go" was written by Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, which surprised me considering that my other favorite movie of 2009 (so far ... I'm about halfway through the list of films I want to watch) was the Eggers-co-penned "Where the Wild Things Are." I'd heard Eggers' named mentioned with reverence before this, but had never read any of his work, so I didn't realize that we apparently think on the same wavelength. "Where the Wild Things Are" is an transposition of the Maurice Sendak children's book, which is slight and simple, into a fully fleshed out and yet faithful movie. It shares with "Away We Go" the same honesty and reality about life and relationships, in this case giving us a look at childhood that feels like nothing I've ever
seen on screen before.

The premise isn't exactly new: stories from "Alice in Wonderland" to "The Wizard of Oz" to "Spirited Away" have a child transition from a life of mundane events into a fantastical world filled with strange creatures and no parents around to guide the child with advice. And yet what's unusual here is that "Where the Wild Things Are" isn't a coming of age tale. Max does not exit through the other side, having made his first adult decisions, as more of a man. Rather, it's a coming-to-grips-with-his-age tale. Max doesn't really grow as much as he does try to grow and find himself facing his failures. He learns humility. He learns of his own limitations.

Every kid (actually, every adult probably, too) thinks that if only he or she were put in charge of the world, everything would be done better. It's only the pesky parents (or pesky authorities, or politicians, or church leadership, or familial expectations, or the rich, or the masses) that stand in the way of making things the way they ought to be. When Max comes into the mystical land of the Wild Things, he declares himself to be the king and the creatures agree to live by his rule. But Max, like all of us, is flawed. Max, like all of us (but especially as a child who is still struggling with his raw emotion), doesn't know how to make everything all right. He learns that being in charge is not the life of satisfaction and peace. From this, Max is able to place himself in his mother's shoes for the first time, the mother who he expects to make everything all right but who is simply doing the best she can. I suppose he sees her as a person for the first time, and she, to her credit, views him as more than an unruly burden, but also as a full person in his own right. We see a mutual love born of mutual humility.

This movie capture so viscerally and tangibly the sense of powerlessness that it is to be a child. This isn't a children's movie in an escapist sense, where the kids are smart and cool and talented and in control, the kind of kids we wish we could all be in our dreams, going on adventure after adventure. It is rather a children's movie in the sense of a great, resonant song of longing, one that puts into words everything that you actually feel and experience — the kind of song that makes you feel that you are not alone in the world. I don't personally know any children at the age of the film's protagonist to know if this is something that that can be appreciated as a child, but it certainly takes me back. It puts me in a frame of mind of what my much younger son surely experiences, having to be dragged from store to home to school to church at our convenience rather than his. Is there a way to honor and acknowledge that frustration in him rather than simply thinking of it as my right as the parent to make the schedule? How can I learn to see his outbursts not as an attack on or commentary about me but as his experiencing these raw emotions about his own lack of being in charge? I suppose "Where the Wild Things Are" is as much a parents' film as it is a children's film. It very well might have invented its own genre.

How daring of Eggers to present both of these visions of parents, children, families, and spouses in ways that defy the shorthand stereotypes of what the movies usually present. He didn't exactly get much in the way of reward, whether through the box office or through industry awards, to acknowledge his work. I certainly hope that doesn't deter him or temper him in the future from bringing forth such unique, rich, and satisfying screenplays, and hope that visionary directors like Sam Mendes and Spike Jonze will continue to fight to make his films untampered by studio execs. I find myself shrugging my shoulders in response to so many of the films I see these days, almost numb to their effects; Eggers' first two movies are exactly the sort of antidote I crave.

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