Before YouTube, there was Newgrounds. It was a formative experience to many young internet users, who formed a burgeoning community around the amateur solo artists who spent thousands of hours perfecting their Flash animations. Granted, the platform had its fair share of trash, but its best content was truly special – a testament to the creative power of an individual and their computer.
With Away, Latvian filmmaker Gints Zilbalodis has taken this humble sentiment to a whole new level of craftsmanship, serving as writer, director, producer, composer, cinematographer and editor. To complete a film in these circumstances is an accomplishment; to make one this good is remarkable.
It begins with a nameless boy landing on a mysterious island, his parachute caught in the gnarled branches of a dead tree. After regaining consciousness, a colossal figure lurches towards him. This ghostly shadow exudes a lazy menace, yet its intentions aren’t clear. Instinctively, the boy flees across the rugged, Martian terrain, with the shadow making slow, deliberate chase. When the boy reaches a vantage point, he sees a craggy land bridge jutting from the ground. He doesn’t realise that it is the first checkpoint in an epic, personal struggle.
Zilbalodis quickly impresses with his elemental world building, creating a dynamic environment that is soothing, evocative and alive. The fluid camerawork gives his illustration a real sense of adventure, which is bolstered by sharp, stimulating acoustics. This comes together when the boy passes through a dank cave, emerging onto a cool, brisk coastline where waves crash against rock with an almost 4D tangibility.
He moves on, reaching a lush oasis of streams, water lilies, and fruit-bearing trees. It is here that the boy finds a friend in a small bird, sharing fruit with it on a rocky outcrop. The expressions of the boy, the bird and all of the animals in Away are conveyed with little detail, yet this minimalism has greater evocation than the cutesy anthropomorphism of Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli. It’s an important feature of Zilbalodis’s tasteful aesthetic, which is a deft blend of the real and the mystical.
As the boy continues his journey through increasingly hostile terrain, questions of meaning arise. To this writer, the boy’s adventure represents our curious search for serotonin, an instinct that chooses our friends, hobbies and profession. Meanwhile, the spirit that follows is a metaphor for everything that dogs us, whether that is depression, anxiety, fear or some other malady of the mind.
The spirit engulfs the boy on several occasions, sending him into an opiate-like trance as he retreats into the foetal position, surrendering to the spirit’s perniciously comforting force. This is what giving up looks like, capitulating to the stress, the doubts and the naysayers. It is a simple yet poignant metaphor that has the power to resonate with anyone who’s ever had an ambition. Nothing worthwhile is easy, and that’s what Away is all about.