Sunday, August 18, 2019


Where’d You Go, Bernadette is about a genius architect. She (Cate Blanchett, in another of her textured, tightly-wound, woman-on-the-verge performances) is nearly a recluse and hasn’t worked in two decades. She’s in the middle of restoring a crumbling former girls’ reform school in Seattle where she lives with her high-level Microsoft project manager husband (Billy Crudup) and their adorable Antarctica-loving eighth-grader daughter (Emma Nelson). Bernadette is also nearing or at her wit’s end, with crippling social anxiety, barely able to force herself out of the house for fear of all the irritants in the world — namely, other people, especially the busybody school moms and neighborhood fussbudgets (most notably Kristen Wiig) whose relentless striving and nitpicking are understandably annoying. Bernadette raises annoyance to an art form, her sublimated or dormant creative energies healthily channeled into a close relationship with her daughter, and unhealthy antagonism with everyone and everything else. This is a set of very specific character choices, a collection of traits and circumstances that are singular, and therefore typical of a Richard Linklater project, a filmmaker who, above all else, makes vivid and textured film of specificity in their characters. Whether he’s looking at a college baseball team in the 1980s, or a flirtatious couple of strangers (or long-lost loves, or a married couple) wandering Europe, or a high school in the 70s, or a boy growing through the early-2000s, or a charming oaf scamming a school or covering up a murder, a Linklater film is one of observation and love. His are inquisitive and sensitive films that sketch in the characters’ hopes and dreams, behaviors and philosophies, ticks and eccentricities, into singular windows into particular people. Here, Blanchett’s Bernadette is given the space to unravel and maybe, just maybe, find her way. She rarely sleeps, she over-medicates, she has tense interactions with most everyone but her loving daughter (a tender relationship well-defined). It’s clear she can’t improve these conditions because she’s accepted this as her lot in life. She has the capacity to change for the better, but, like so many of us, she can’t find the first step on that journey.

There’s more to the standoffish Bernadette (and Bernadette, with its soft lighting and comfortable staging) than meets the eye. She’s surrounded by people who at first look like shallow types in a social satire — a comedy of manners in the overlap between an overpaid tech world and an upper-class private school enclave, the way Bernadette herself seems to see it some of the time — but Linklater and his co-writers, working from the novel by Maria Semple, strengthen and deepen every character with a inner life that glows through, even in unexpected ways. The story feints in a few directions every so often — clashes with the neighborhood, a therapist on call, a looming vacation, past disappointments and rash contemporaneous decisions. It lightly develops each scenario’s possibilities while drifting towards another, resisting outright farce or melodrama in favor of something more comfortably, naturally heightened, before finally resolving in unexpectedly simple and moving moods of potential for reconciliation of these disparate conflicts. It’s engaging and moving precisely because it’s so unhurried and genuine, gently funny and compassionately wrought, in tune with its main character’s mental energies and trends. The movie is as sharp and unpredictable on the surface, and yet as warm and clear underneath, as Bernadette herself. It’s a loving, but critical movie, one that adores its character’s potential without ignoring or valorizing her flaws. She is both wholly herself — a unique individual — and symptomatic of so many who slip away without ever leaving, resisting human connection and retreating into convenient shadings or outright fictions that allow resentments to fester and self-righteousness to inflate. Linklater’s soft, textured, clear-eyed humanism allows her this mistake without denying her — or anyone’s — humanity. She has a void so many feel, and tries to cover it up with excuses, or screens, or empty busyness. The movie, calmly, patiently observed, watches as those who love her try to help her until she can help herself. This quiet optimism guides the project to a gentle, loving moment of clarity, and a reaffirmation of what makes a life well-lived. A movie this compassionate and kindhearted doesn’t come along every day.

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