Away We Go begins with a thirty-something couple, in love for many years yet unmarried, finding out that they are about to have their first child. The man is Burt (John Krasinski). Burt never finished college and is currently struggling to make it as an insurance salesman. The expecting mother is Verona (Maya Rudolph), a struggling artist.
Burt and Verona can barely make ends meet and hope to bring their child up in a better environment. Like a couple of pilgrims searching for a better life, they head out to explore America, visiting friends and family in different cities to ultimately find the right place to live. They travel all over, from the dry Arizona desert, to frigid Canada.
In every city, they meet a series of eccentric characters. There's Verona's very profane former co-worker (Allison Janney) in Phoenix and Burt's hippy cousin (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Madison, among many others. What the audience learns is that each person they meet has a very different perception of family and a very different view of how to raise children. So as they travel they are not just visiting friends, they're learning how to raise a family.
Away We Go's director, Sam Mendes, is perhaps most famous for his Best Picture winning debut film, American Beauty. American Beauty dealt largely with characters fighting their outer perceptions and eventually learning about the inner feelings of others. Away We Go deals with this theme through a wide range of American culture. Burt and Verona stay with what seems like a peaceful hippy; but she turns out to be an overbearing mother. Meanwhile, their college friend and his wife seem as happy as any couple can be, but they have a dark, underlying secret.
It is not just Burt and Verona however, who are learning new things about other people. The audience becomes sort of a third invisible character and becomes a part of seeing how the characters change as well perceptions of them. Even though Burt seems immature at times and a little lazy we soon realize that he has passion and an extreme dedication to being a parent. Verona's refusal to marry Burt might seem like a lack of commitment at first but then it turns out to be a testament of love.
One of the finest features of Away We Go is its often breathtaking cinematography. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras focuses on the world around the characters, not just the tiny little bubble they live in. The movie takes its time to show the sun rising over the desert or a shot of the usually bright Miami in a very quiet, dark night.
The movie is bolstered by fine performances. Krasinski retains his hilarious Jim Halpert (from The Office) awkwardness and Rudolph's very moving performance shows much depth for an actress known mostly for impersonating Paris Hilton and Oprah on Saturday Night Live. Meanwhile, the two brief appearances by Janney, Gyllenhaal, and Jim Gaffigan manage to be brilliant scene stealers.
Away We Go is by no means perfect. It takes time to get into the characters and the road trip story feels somewhat too familiar at times. However, it manages to be so original in that it does something few movies do today: rather than having tragic experiences tear the characters apart, it manages to just keep bringing them closer and closer together and the relationship feel all the more real. Wouldn't it be nice if every movie treated its characters this way?