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Where’d You Go Bernadette? (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 25, 2020

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?


Starring Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbania, Troian Bellisario, Richard Robichaux, Kate Burton, Steve Zahn, Megan Mullally, David Paymer, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Claudia Doumit, Kathryn Feeney, Kate Easton, Katelyn Statton and Lana Young.

Screenplay by Richard Linklater & Holly Gent & Vince Palmo.

Directed by Richard Linklater.

Distributed by United Artists. 104 minutes. Rated PG-13.

I was mindlessly browsing in a small Bucks County independent book shop when I happened upon author Maria Semple’s 2012 novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Basically, it was love at first back cover read. The central character, Bernadette Fox, is brilliant, creative, profoundly anxious, and a mom. She is passionate about her daughter, problem solving, and her distaste of PTA school mom norms. She is a visionary architect with a career in limbo, taking a time out from her talents while she raises (or is raised by?) her 15-year-old daughter Bee. While many of her traits are extremes that keep Bernadette from being a neurotic self-study of ourselves, there is a bit of Bernadette in everyone… or well, everyone that I relate to in life.

To quickly summarize the story, our central character, Bernadette, is professionally stagnating in Seattle after a catastrophic event in her professional career. A quick departure from the southern California architecture scene turns into a 20-year disappearance into motherhood after many miscarriages lead to a miracle baby, Bee, who survives a fragile childhood with congenital heart disease.

This story would take a toll on an average human being, but there is an even harder toll for a creative force of nature funneling all of her passionate force into being a stay at home mom, self-managing her own severe anxiety with little communication or support from her hard at work, similarly creative husband, Elgie. When Bee announces that it is time for her parents to make good on their promise to get her whatever she wants if she manages to get all A’s through her entire middle school career, both parents are shocked to hear that her wish has changed from a pony to a family trip to Antarctica.

This forces Bernadette to face her agoraphobic fears and deteriorating relationship with her husband as she prepares for this adventure.

Maria Semple steps into an executive producer role for the 2019 film adaptation Where’d You Go Bernadette? and the adaptation rings true to its literary counterpart. While the film feels a bit frantic, if you’ve read the novel, you know that Richard Linklater (director, co-screenwriter) managed to pack in many of the classic details directly from the pages of the novel, but most importantly, managed to maintain the true voice of the characters.

One of my favorite moments from the film was the internet biographical montage about Fox that neatly summarizes her past accomplishments, complete with “historical” interviews with a youthful Laurence Fishburne, Steve Zahn, and Megan Mullally as past colleagues and stunning photos of Bernadette and her husband, Elgie (Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup) from their early years. In minutes, the montage tells the backstory of Bernadette’s professional brilliance in a format so captivating that I know, if it were a real documentary on tv, I would likely have watched it on repeat.

I liked the film even more the second time around. The first time, I was focused in on the story, weary of an adaptation of a novel that I like so much. My biggest take away from both viewings was that the casting was truly perfect.

Elgin (Elgie) Branch, played by Crudup, captures the charismatic, boyishly handsome, Microsoft tech wizard that charms the pants (thankfully, not in the film) off of his administrative assistant/PTA mom, Soo-Lin (played by Zoe Chao). In my eyes, not only was this perfect casting, but a perfect example where a novel sub-plot was deleted from the film and I thought it was a great choice.

Bee (Balikrishna) Branch, played by newcomer Emma Nelson, was smart and vulnerable and the perfect yin to her mom Bernadette’s yang.

Kristen Wiig is perfectly understated in her portrayal of passive aggressive PTA head mom role of Audrey. The Bernadette/Audrey storyline felt a bit too watered down in the film, particularly in its final scenes, but is at its finest in their big street confrontation, where Bee stands up for her mom against Audrey’s bullying.

Finally, Bernadette Fox, played by Blanchett, is one of the most inspired choices that I could have imagined. She captures the anxiety and mania, creative genius and passion of the complex lead character.

Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne, Megan Mullally, Kate Burton, Steven Zahn round out the star-studded cast list.

On my second go round, I was able to really focus in on more of the details – and there are so many details – in the art direction of the set, particularly in the organized creative chaos of the 9,500 square foot “tear down” of a dilapidated reform school turned family home of the Branch/Fox family. I look forward to reading the novel for my third time and re-watching the film – a story this complex, human, and well-performed remains an inspiration to pull your spirit out of stagnation, and in my opinion, the film does a good job at capturing this spirit from the novel.

Bonnie Paul

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: August 16, 2019.

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