Nearly three-and-a-half years ago when reviewing Everybody Wants Some!!, this writer identified two parallels between which filmmaker Richard Linklater always seems to operate. It was either “free-wheeling fun” or “poignant realism” with “scant middle ground.” Call them Party Linklater and Deep Linklater. The question mark skipped from the title of Where’d You Go, Bernadette can be placed in the sentence of which Linklater did we get? Welcome to the uncharted and unexpected “scant middle ground” where grandiose fiction is the party and odd eccentricity is the depth.
Neurotically charming, yet misshapen in many ways, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is wholly unique from the Texan and Hollywood outsider. The movie has the equal ability to disarm and disgust depending on your perspective or experience with the Maria Semple source material. Non-readers will float with the staccato blustering and the Antarctic kayak currents of fancy. Ardent fans will wonder where all the scintillating mystery went that gave merit to all the haphazard happenings beset on the family of narrator Balakrishna Branch, affectionately known as “Bee” and played by debuting talent Emma Nelson.
Bee is the uber-precocious 15-year-old daughter of a pair of brilliant-minded, attracted opposites. Her father is the Microsoft-backed tech innovator Elgin Branch, played by Billy Crudup, earning industry kudos and TED Talk stages with groundbreaking new mind-to-text recognition software. The extroverted and borderline workaholic is matched by his reclusive and agoraphobic wife and Bee’s titular mother, played by Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett and her bangs. Detailed by exposition-minded video essays viewed by characters on screen, Bernadette Fox was once the toast of Los Angeles and the most brilliant architectural design savant of her generation before professional disappointment burned and stomped over her creativity.
Bernadette’s own explanatory observations of self-diagnosis state “the brain is a discounting mechanism.” It’s a labeling line of thought fueled by empirical study, plenty of science, and a side of doubting bullshit. It’s true that the brain indeed looks for risk and signals accordingly. To call it a design flaw for danger instead of joy, however, is where you squint at the woman’s nuttiness to a degree. Still, this background and Cate’s delivery of it all sheds light on the movie’s nervous system.
For years, Bernadette has buried herself in two projects: being a mom and endlessly tinkering with restoring a huge derelict old school building into the family’s home in the Seattle burbs. Anxiety has grown into to insomnia and a racing heart during social and domestic confrontations. Her most common clashes are anything requiring Bernadette to interact and keep up with the joneses of the hoity-toity private school Bee attends (something matching of Semple’s inspiration). That judgy crowd is led by the granola and snooty next door neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig) and her minion Soo-Lin (TV actress Zoe Chao) who works with Elgin.
We learn a great deal about where Elgin and Bernadette stand in a dynamite sequence of two separated venting sessions. Elgin has approached a psychiatrist (Judy Greer) about how to deal with his wife. In a different location, Bernadette catches up with an old colleague (Laurence Fishburne) that she hasn’t seen in years. Deftly constructed with surgical editing from Linklater regular Sandra Adair, his lament combines with her rant. His conclusion is help while hers is to create, showing just how far apart the two former lovebirds are now.
Outside of her impressionable daughter, Bernadette’s verbose and unrestrained external monologue is received and filtered through “Manjula,” her unseen automated text-to-speech personal assistant service. Even with the prospect of an Antarctic cruise vacation for Bee on the horizon, all of the loose threads of Bernadette’s current course are unraveling to several breaking points. Everyone can see these potential disasters coming except her and the loyal Bee who considers her mother her best friend.
The movie presents a family that still loves the mess that Bernadette has become. Her husband, for all his worry, remains a willing confidante. The nearly unconditional love between daughter and mother is tremendous. Mom defends her daughter’s independence and the resilient girl gives it right back in the face of the catty other moms. Accepting and inspiring familial love trumps every quirk or mistake and the film forces a great many syrup-coated steps to ensure that happens.
Showing off as much if not more unstable petulance as she did winning the Oscar for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett bring a dizzying level of detail to her characterization of depressed pizzazz and wallowing pluck and play Bernadette Fox. There is never a wasted movement or breath with Cate. This is complete immersion and her vocal and physical expressions and actions of exasperation are fascinating to watch. Sure, maybe we’ve seen this level of difficulty before from the newly-minted 50-year-old, but the capability and brilliance she brings to these odd roles is nearly second to none. Put her right there next to Meryl Streep where her dedication to any and every challenge cannot be questioned.
Across from that celebrated star of rich and storied career heights is Emma Nelson, the rookie in her first movie. Experience be damned, she becomes the emotional linchpin of the whole darn thing. Every arc of personal improvement for Bernadette lifts one for Bee and the first-timer exudes mettle and moxie. Read a little local Chicagoland love from critic colleague Dann Gire of The Daily Herald on this Barrington, Illinois native. That girl is going places besides just her next year of high school.
Admittedly, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is tricky business for Richard Linklater. Semple’s best-seller is a uniquely mystery-driven collection of documents, emails, and transcripts, stuff not easy or clear to translate on screen without heavy narration or the wild visual creativity of something like Searching. Linklater and the Me and Orson Welles screenwriting team of Holly Gent and Vince Palmo bent and stripped away that hop-scotch of truth and “you never know everything” intrigue to fashion something more straight-forward and safe as a character piece narrative. In doing so, the resulting film skimps on opportunities to wreak more havoc in personal lives. The fits and spurts of how far to raise eyebrows comes out in the film’s unevenness. Luckily, the acting is steadfast and satisfying.
Critique aside, the clear goal for Linklater was to create or hone something more pleasant than a tawdry yarn of competing gossip. The third act of this movie takes a walkabout-ish excursion and turn for Bernadette and company brings aims positivity to elevate the doldrums of everyone’s downward spiral. Choose your journey to reinvigorate your soul. The Antarctica location doesn’t matter. It’s the fact you take one when you need it most.