One thing parenthood forces on a couple, well before the child is even born, is the need for certainty. Decisions have to be made, and all the twigs on the nest have to be glued together. Being unsettled isn’t so bad for young adults who live hand-to-mouth and can afford a few lost years, but taking care of a kid requires more than flaky improvisation. That’s the trouble facing John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph in Away We Go, a disarming road comedy about parents-to-be looking for a place to call home. Working from a bright, keenly observed script by married authors Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) embarks on a picaresque journey across North America that isn’t nearly as spontaneous as it means to be, but remains full of insight about what goes into being a parent.
Though they begin the film a little unmoored, there isn’t a lot of friction between Krasinski and Rudolph, who both give relaxed, lived-in performances as a couple comfortable with each other’s quirks. Instead, the tension comes from without. After his parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) make the unexpected decision to move to Europe a month before the due date, Krasinski and Rudolph have nothing keeping them in their cluttered Colorado home. So they check out other cities—like Phoenix, where an old work acquaintance (Allison Janney) and her husband (Jim Gaffigan) treat their misshapen kids with terrible apathy, or Madison, Wisconsin, where one of Krasinski’s childhood friends (Maggie Gyllenhaal), now a college professor, explores the outer limits of alternative parenting.
And so it goes, with the couple wending through Montreal and Miami, getting a strong sense of what to expect when they’re expecting. As the film progresses, the straight, almost cartoonish comedy of the first few encounters shifts into a subtler, more enriching study of parenthood—its joys, its surprises, and the sheer heartbreaking fragility of the whole enterprise. Though Away We Go lacks the screwball unpredictability of something like Flirting With Disaster, it compensates with a unexpected depth of feeling, a novelist’s (or memoirist’s) sense of detail, and a panoramic view of what home means.