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Image: Away We Go
Focus Features
John Kransinski's unfashionable eyewear and beard along with Maya Rudolph's thrift store wardrobe are just a couple identifiers that "Away We Go," though a good film, is completely twee.
By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/1/2009 2:43:27 PM ET 2009-06-01T18:43:27

Migrating from its native habitat at the Sundance Film Festival and now visible in theaters nationwide, “twee” is making its way into more and more movies each year. What the heck is twee, you ask? It’s tricky to define but fairly easy to spot.

I see it first and foremost in the font choices of director Wes Anderson. Whether it’s signage or just on-screen text in his films, Anderson likes to put everything into Futura, a very stripped-down font that has no serifs or other visual filigree. On the one hand, it’s minimal enough that one might think that the goal was to avoid attention; on the other hand, the fact that he consistently uses the Futura font, even in contexts where it’s unusual or out of place, paradoxically draws even more attention.

And that, in a nutshell, is the essence of twee — avoiding the fashionable, the obvious, the predictable, the mundane in an attempt to be, for lack of a better phrase, showily unshowy.

Twee is the college girl who shows up at a party wearing vintage men’s glasses and a 1960s nurse uniform. It’s the guy reading the dog-eared and falling-apart 1959 edition of Camus at the Starbucks attached to a Borders. It’s about replacing one calculated technique of visual and cultural cues with another.

Cheap is the new expensive
Anderson by no means has cornered the market on this aesthetic in movies: It’s in the retro furniture and Moldy Peaches songs in “Juno,” in the doodle-covered poster and thrift-store wardrobe of “Away We Go,” the precisely art-directed working-class digs of “Sunshine Cleaning” and the bright yellow bus and the Dinah’s chicken buckets of “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The costumes and set decoration and music choices of mainstream fare like “He’s Just Not That Into You” or “Taken” are specifically designed to impart information about the characters: How they dress, what their kitchens look like, what’s in their iPod and what kind of car they drive all has meaning that viewers process whether or not they’re even aware that they’re doing it. The director and his or her army of stylists and artists make each individual decision, knowing that all of these details will add up to say something about the people in the movie.

In the land of twee, directors and those stylists are doing exactly the same thing, but you’re not supposed to notice. By refusing to give John Krasinski fashionable eyeglasses in “Away We Go” or to let Jennifer Aniston wear her usual Jennifer Aniston hairstyle in “Management,” those filmmakers are sending a direct message to the anti-establishment bohemian and hipster-types in the target audience.

In a way, twee movie coding is specifically designed to make viewers who think they’re too smart for a movie like “Bride Wars” feel like they’re watching something more true or genuine. Ultimately, though, those viewers are responding to a veneer that is calculatedly “authentic” by design but not necessarily any more or less contrived than that of a mainstream Hollywood comedy. “Management,” for instance, is a thoroughly run-of-the-mill rom-com (with some added stalking) that tries to use quirky choices of casting and locations to disguise itself as something edgier than it is.

As much as the worldview of “Sex and the City” is designed to make a certain demographic lust for a Birkin bag from Hermès, “Juno” allows its audience to feel culturally superior for eschewing such finery in favor of $10 tube socks from American Apparel, as though those socks were any less of a culturally-loaded commodity than the purse.

It’s all Molly Ringwald’s fault
Twee has many cultural roots, from the phenomenon of “alternative” becoming a category for the mainstream music industry in the early 1990s to the deadpan eccentricity of the 1980s films of Jim Jarmusch; the latter were designed to provoke a response in a very specific, usually college-educated, demographic by placing odd characters into odder-still situations with nary an eyebrow raised.

One could even argue that the “alt” aesthetic of twee owes something to the films of John Hughes, who made mass-audience teen movies about kids who listened to the Smiths. Even if you looked like the big-haired, shoulder-padded villains of “Pretty in Pink” in 1986, the movie gave you license to identify with Molly Ringwald’s thrift-store–dressed heroine and to buy a soundtrack that featured non-Top-40 acts like Echo and the Bunnymen and New Order.

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Ringwald’s awful prom dress in that movie might also explain the many twee films that feature attractive actresses frumping it up in a misguided attempt to be blue-collar and “real.” While such casting occasionally works (Amy Adams as an ex-cheerleader-turned-housekeeper in “Sunshine Cleaning” or Toni Collette’s frazzled “Little Miss Sunshine” mom), there are many more movies where the performers fail to convince (the glamorous Kate Beckinsale’s “Snow Angels” turn as a waitress in a small-town Chinese restaurant leaps to mind).

Twee: awful, except when it isn’t
Twee comes in many forms in current indie cinema: At the top of the heap are stylists like Anderson and Rian Johnson (“The Brothers Bloom,” “Brick”). While these two filmmakers certainly traffic in twee visuals and other aesthetic choices, the look of their movies is so completely not of this world that these artists stand alone in their own tastefully-designed alternate universes.

Then you’ve got movies that flirt with the trappings of twee but manage to still be about reasonably real-seeming people in more or less recognizable situations, like “Juno” and “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Away We Go.” (The latter film sees co-screenwriter Dave Eggers’ excessive and cloying twee-ness counteracted by the aggressively workmanlike direction of Sam Mendes, thereby creating a perfect balance. So long as you don’t mind the whispery, faux–Iron and Wine singer-songwriter soundtrack.)

When twee goes wrong, it simply becomes hard to swallow or, worse, monumentally irritating, as in “Sunshine Cleaning” or “Stephanie Daley” (lest you think all twee movies are comedies) or “Management.” Perhaps the genre’s worst to date is “Gigantic,” the recent release in which mattress salesman Paul Dano and adorable kooky chick Zooey Deschanel (a talented actress whose hipster-prettiness has made her the patron saint of twee) mutter lots of go-nowhere dialogue at each other in monotone voices.

What’s the future of twee?
If the trailer is to be believed, it’s going to be “(500) Days of Summer.” It stars Zooey Deschanel. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It premiered at Sundance. “It’s not a love story. It’s a story about love,” semi-promises the trailer tagline. And those parentheses in the title? Totally twee.

Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.

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