A lot of movies sold on the back of their technical achievements are not very good, especially once you strip away the undeniably impressive meta-text of having pulled off their major selling point.
Three examples. 2015’s Victoria was sold on the conceit that its entire city-wide near two-and-a-half-hour-long crime plot unfolded in one unbroken take, but had precious little to recommend outside of the vicarious thrill of seeing if any part of the enterprise would crash and burn, thanks to annoying characters and a nonsensical plot. 2017’s Loving Vincent was the first animated feature entirely made via oil painting, and its gorgeous visuals were wasted on a confused neo-noir examination of Van Gogh’s depression that (at least from how I saw it) romanticised suicide. And, in the hottest of takes that’ll get me burned at all the stakes, 2014’s Boyhood was filmed in pieces over 12 years, and at no point did Richard Linklater manage to find a worthwhile story, set of characters, or proper theme to justify his ridiculous commitment.
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Much of the time, films that boast unique technical achievements end up as, to unfortunately borrow TV Tropes vernacular, dancing bears. Works more notable for their central gimmick rather than any lasting qualities. And I lead with this observation upfront because that makes Away all the more special. Away has largely been sold on the back of its extraordinary artistic feat: the entire movie – the storyboarding, character animation, lighting, art designs, music, sound design, editing – was made by one guy: Gints Zilbadolis, a Latvian animator fast rising in animation circles following his strong run of Vimeo-spotlit shorts. From start to finish, it took him three-and-a-half years to create the entirety of this 75-minute animated feature which, in a medium where even the seemingly cheapest and ugliest fare has a credits roll longer than the 12’ remix of an 80s new wave song, is an undeniable achievement.
But, thankfully, Away hits significantly deeper than that. In fact, you could go into it without even knowing about its production feat and still find the whole experience profoundly moving. This is more than Away simply clearing the low bar of being a “real movie”. I personally found Away to be one of the most soulful animated movies I had experienced in a long time, one possessed of so much feeling and power that it manages to transcend almost all of its limitations whilst never losing the almost dreamlike abstraction that provides its most arresting images.
Which sounds weird to say given that Zilbalodis’ first feature is so uncomplicated and modest, even in the more artsy animated field. There is no dialogue of any kind. No additional backstory or flashbacks. The plot follows a young boy, the lone survivor of some kind of plane accident, racing across a deserted wilderness back to civilisation, pursued every step of the way by a lumbering but ceaseless giant spirit that drains the life out of any creature it comes across. No further twists, side characters, or major complications than that basic outline. The technical side of the animation can be distractingly half-baked at times – movements are very stiff and unnatural when the boy’s reserved animations call for something a little greater, and there’s simultaneously too much and too little weight to skipping and jumping, and facial expressions (very rarely but just enough to be worthy of noting) can look pretty goofy; all like the film had been designed in Unity. And the usage of abstraction can cause its central metaphor to become somewhat muddled at points; there’s a slight “Rorschach painting” sensation at times where the viewer is expected to read what they want into many of Zilbalodis’ most eye-catching images.
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But that very uncomplication and smart approach to the limitations, self-imposed and not, of his charge actually intertwine with the narrative to make the film as a whole sing on its own merits irrespective of the dancing bear. It may not be for everyone, but I just adore Zilbalodis’ art style and how he compensates for a lack of technical resources by going all-in on the design side of the equation. These largely edgeless, rounded designs, nearly all lacking thick outlines, whether creature or landscape, instantly pop out aesthetically to the eye, especially when combined with the warm yet bold colour palette. Environments and natural phenomena, such as avalanches and well spurts, have a unique modulated look to them which emphasises the surreal unreality and isolating desertion of the land the boy travels across. When I watch and think of comparisons, my mind finds less in common with theatrical animation and more with video games – Life is Strange in the character designs, The Unfinished Swan in the interplay of colours and space, and ICO in how the stunning boarding and shot composition creates something grand and beautifully imposing without sacrificing the minimalism and intimacy intended by the narrative.
Much like ICO, the atmosphere and visual storytelling on display are immaculate. Zilabalodis carefully composes his shots and makes every camera movement count in order to effectively communicate the boy’s thought process, plus that of a little yellow bird he helps out and is accompanied by for part of the journey, and looming sensation of despair without outsized facial expressions. When combined with the film’s elegiac tone and pacing, he puts together some phenomenal sequences that are suffused with so much feeling and emotion. The looming horror of a giant monster slowly emerging out of a dusty desert fog. The conspicuous pop of a sole yellow bird flying in formation for the first time with a group of white birds. The lingering trauma of dozens of smoke-black ghosts tumbling out of the sky during a nightmare. The isolating beauty in a series of wide-angle long-shot match-cuts in which the lone boy bikes through the ever-changing environment. A crumbled woodland settlement weirdly having found a new life via a makeshift society of docile cats congregating around a daily gushing well.
As alluded to, the specific metaphor of Zilbalodis’ film that provides a deeper meaning beyond its survival story can get muddled when followed linearly instead of piecemeal. I read a lot of the film as a metaphor for grappling with and the inward/outward effects of depression, which is where so many of the most powerful sequences ended up gutting me, although there are parts that work against that. But every shot is so invested with tangible feeling and soul that it kinda ceases to matter when the intended emotional response still comes through regardless of potential thematic muddling. Away is concise and precise in its minimalist execution of that desire to move the viewer. There’s not a wasted shot, no extraneous characters, no artificial need to boost the tension or overexplain – another way of describing it would be as a less ostentatious Gravity where everyone thankfully shuts up – even the self-composed score (channelling the spirit of Jóhan Jóhannsson) is able to put so much emotion during arguably the film’s standout scene (the one rightly plastered all over the marketing) through just the repetition of three ascending notes.
More than just being a feat of personal perseverance, Away deserves to be applauded and sought out for its artistic achievement. This is one of the best animated films I have seen in a long time.