Film Review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette
Where’d You Go, Bernadette directed by Richard Linklater
The film takes place in Seattle where we meet the attractive, upscale family of Elgie Branch (Billy Crudup), and Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), their teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), and a yellow Labrador retriever named Ice Cream. They live in a huge Victorian house clearly subject to the inevitable issues of decrepitude. Nevertheless, on the surface, it looks like a perfect family living a good life. But what is chafing at Bernadette? She is prickly, outspoken, and somewhat misanthropic, with few friends. She is also engaged in an undeclared battle with her next-door neighbor, the buttoned-up Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who has a son in the same class as Bee. Bernadette’s family moved to Seattle about 20 years ago from California on account of Elgie’s job with Microsoft where he is a superstar developer and workaholic. Bee is a popular student at a progressive high school and has an extremely tight bond with her mother. Bernadette has still not taken to the Seattle social milieu. She is unsubtly unimpressed and determinedly not fitting in. Her behavior is eccentric, to say the least.
Things take a dramatic turn when Bee convinces her parents to go on a trip to Antarctica as a reward for her perfect grades and acceptance to Choate, a preparatory school in Connecticut. This is where Bernadette’s erratic behavior begins to escalate and her backstory comes into focus. Torn between her devotion to her daughter and her personal anxiety about the trip, a definite challenge for a person as controlling as Bernadette. The reality of her daughter’s departure for boarding school also looms large as she begins to unravel. Elgie, who has become detached and consumed by his work, has finally been forced to acknowledge that there is something going on that is not quite normal. At a loss as to what to do, he is convinced that an intervention is the solution. Through all of this we get a glimpse of Bernadette’s backstory. Formerly a recognized rising star in the world of modernist architecture she had previously been awarded McArthur Genius Grants and her projects were highly publicized. An incident of callous destruction of one of her proudest achievements 20 years earlier was so devastating that she turned her back on her career. She simultaneously fell in love with Elgie, agreed to marriage, and a departure from California to Seattle. After several miscarriages, the birth of Bee is the most precious thing in her life and she guards Bee’s wellbeing with the same boundless energy formerly devoted to her work.
Based on the popular 2012 novel by Marie Semple, the plot kicks in late and then escalates somewhat intrusively to drive the rest of the film, which is broadly about Bernadette’s midlife crisis and finding her way through it. I have not mentioned that it is a quasi-madcap comedy. The captivating performance delivered by the ever-brilliant, Cate Blanchett carries the film. I’m afraid that the screenplay does not give it’s literary source material ample attention. Many of the events proceed in unconvincing sequences. However, it moves along at a brisk clip, with breathtaking photography of Antarctica, fascinating architectural references, marvelous set design and beautiful art direction. The rest of the cast is convincing and well-directed but underwritten compared to Bernadette, who steals the show. Who better than Blanchett?
I thoroughly enjoyed it in the moment and, after the fact, was moved by the intensity of the mother/daughter relationship portrayal.