Jennie Yabroff: "Away We Go" and Capturing a Generation

In the funniest scene in the new Sam Mendes film, Away We Go, Burt and Verona, a young couple expecting their first baby, have dinner with Burt's childhood friend, an opinionated neo-earth-mother who goes by the name of LN. LN, a bourgeois bohemian trust-funder who doesn't allow shoes in her ethno-chicly appointed home, prattles on about her militantly permissive style of childrearing (no sugar, no separation, no strollers), blithely criticizing Burt and Verona's own more traditional plans. (They've had the bad taste to bring LN a stroller as gift.) Finally, Burt can take no more. "You're horrible people!" he explodes at LN and her husband, then coaxes the couple's son into the stroller for a forbidden joyride around the living room as LN, her groovy, hip mama veneer shattered, curses and shrieks in protest.

As much as LN is an easily lampooned type, Burt and Verona are types, too--he wears hipsterish nerd glasses and an overgrown beard (this decade's version of the sensitive guy ponytail), while she favors sandals and hippie sundresses; they drive a Volvo, are overeducated and underemployed, and don't feel the need to get married. If you've ever shopped at a farmer's market, attended a Sufjan Stevens concert, or volunteered at a MoveOn.org fundraiser, you know the type. Or, worse, the type is you.

In presenting Burt and Verona as instantly identifiable members of a disporportionately visible, if small, cohort -- the thirty-something sensitive hipster demographic -- Away We Go dooms itself to be hated by the very audience it hopes to represent.   This is the danger of films that attempt to capture what it's like to be a certain age at a certain time: they can be confused as shorthand for a generation's experience. When these films work, as with The Graduate, it's because the characters are idiosyncratic enough to keep the movie grounded in their specific circumstance. As a film about a screwed-up college kid with an overactive libido, The Graduate is hilarious. As a statement about 1960s youths' sense of disillusionment and ennui, it's puerile. Would anyone who was in his early twenties at that time really want to be identified as being as callow and feckless as Benjamin Braddock? Reality Bites is a fun movie about a group of whiny, but sharply-drawn twenty-somethings, but watching the film today, you cringe to think it could stand as a portrait of what life was like for young adults in the mid-90s, especially if you fit that demographic. The best moments of TV's Thirtysomething came when the characters' problems felt unique to them, born of their personalities, not their cultural moment. Friends succeeds as a goofy, ensemble piece; as a portrait of turn-of-the-millennia privileged slackers, it's too wan to define a generation.  

The plot of Away We Go turns on Burt and Verona's quest for a home to raise their child. In presenting non-traditional options (another couple has a multi-racial passel of adopted kids), the film represents family with a fluidity that feels very of-the-moment. And the couple's obsession with being the best parents possible is certainly reflected in our baby-centric society. But just because their portrayal strikes some familiar chords, its not a song you want to hear, especially if the notes hit close to home.   

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