Strong on the Individual

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With its intellectual A-list cast sporting two comediennes, multiple Oscar nominees, and a writer-director known for his careful character development founded in realism, Where’d You Go, Bernadette promises to be the perfect choice for filmgoers with discriminating taste (if “discriminating” can still be used in a favorable context) I was a little concerned by the 46% critics’ rating, but the 77% viewer approval (and that A-list cast) gave me hope that the critics had missed the point on this one.

Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) lives with her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and teenaged daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) in Seattle, where Elgie works as a software developer for Microsoft and Bernadette is a stay-at-home mom whose eccentric nonconformity drives the other mothers mad at Bee’s tony private school. As the film opens they are planning a family trip to Antarctica, a reward for Bee’s perfect report card, and Bernadette is smiling her agreement while plotting how to avoid going.

The film’s title refers literally to Bernadette’s unexplained absence from home midway through the film, but it also refers figuratively to her lost sense of identity. She is an award-winning architect who has lived for nearly two decades in a peeling, unfinished fixer-upper and uses a virtual assistant in India so she doesn’t have to deal face-to-face with people; a gregarious and affectionate wife who can’t open up to her husband; a homeowner who creates devious acts of microaggression against her neighbors; and a mother who . . . well, mothering seems to be the one things she does joyously and well.

As the film opens they are planning a family trip to Antarctica and Bernadette is smiling her agreement while plotting how to avoid going.

Slowly, gradually, we begin to understand what has made Bernadette so withdrawn, and our sympathy for her deepens. We get it. We even discover that she has a bit in common with Ayn Rand’s architect Howard Roark. But the development is too slow and too gradual to be more than moderately engaging, let alone comedic. Yes, it has deeply ironic moments that cause us to guffaw knowingly, but the pacing is simply too slow, the movie too long, and the delivery too deliberate for most audiences.

Bernadette seems to be delusional or agoraphobic or clinically depressed — or perhaps all three. Blanchett plays them all to perfection, manically discoursing nonstop one moment, retreating into isolation the next, growing loving and affectionate in other scenes. We may not understand her, and we wouldn’t want to live next door to her, but we like her all the same. In sum, she is suffering an identity crisis of enormous proportions.

The film itself suffers from a similar identity crisis. Like its heroine, it pretends to be what others want it to be instead of what it is — a surprisingly upbeat but slow-paced drama about a woman struggling with mental illness and her relationships with the people who love her. Yet if you’ve seen any trailers for the film, you would expect it to be a fast-paced, rollicking, laugh-out-loud comedy. But it’s not, which is probably why critics have given it a pass. It’s as though the marketing team decided to promote what they wanted the film to be, instead of what it is. And that’s a lot of Bernadette’s problem too: she has chosen to suppress what makes her special, including the tragedy in her life, in order to be accepted. And it’s driving her crazy.

Slowly we begin to understand what has made Bernadette so withdrawn, and our sympathy for her deepens. We even discover that she has a bit in common with Ayn Rand’s architect Howard Roark.

Director Richard Linklater deliberately cast against type in order to defy audience expectations and emphasize the message of the film: We can’t really be ourselves when we are trying to satisfy someone else’s expectations. Judy Greer, Kristen Wiig, and Megan Mulally, all titans of smart and sassy comedy, are excellent, but they’re given serious roles, one as a clinical psychologist, one as a former acquaintance, and one as a tight-assed controlling neighbor. And because we expect them to be rollickingly funny, we can’t quite accept them as they are — we make them funny, even when they aren’t. It’s a brilliantly subtle directing decision, but it doesn’t quite work, especially in the face of a marketing campaign that didn’t trust the strategy.

Bernadette failed with the critics for largely the same reason Bernadette fails with her neighbors — it tries to present itself as something it’s not. And it simply isn’t necessary. It doesn’t have to fit a genre. The film has strong characters, strong acting, and a strong message. It may be slow, but that’s OK. My friends don’t have to keep me in stitches all the time, and neither do my movies. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is slow, but it’s worth seeing, and maybe even worth seeing again.

Blinded by the Light is another independent film about discovering and maintaining one’s true identity when others are trying to tell you who you ought to be. Set in the 1980s and inspired by the youthful experiences of writer Javed Khan as a Pakistani growing up in Luton, England, its themes of immigration, racism, culture, and fitting in are as current as yesterday’s Facebook post.

In Springsteen’s music Javed finds his own story: the working-class neighborhood, unemployed father, blue-collar expectations with white-collar dreams, and the raw talent to make them happen.

Javed (Viveik Kalra) lives in a working-class neighborhood in England with his ultratraditional Pakistani family. His father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) left home against his own parents’ wishes in search of a better life for his family in England, but he is extremely traditional in his expectations about family and culture. He controls the money, the social life, and the future plans of his wife and his children. “You will not become British!” he shouts at Javed when Javed asks to attend a neighborhood party. As the film opens they are preparing for their oldest daughter’s marriage to a man she has not yet met. Malik pockets the meager earnings from his hard-working wife and children, commanding respect and control even though he is unemployed himself.

And yet, isn’t “becoming British” – or American, or Texan, or suburban — precisely why immigrants bring their families to a new land? Isn’t it because they like what they have observed and want to take advantage of its success? Yet I see newcomers time and again setting about to change the very culture that attracted them.

At school Javed is picked on and shunned. In the neighborhood he is chased and spat upon. At home he feels isolated and unhappy.

And then he discovers Bruce.

Springsteen may not be the Boss of me, but he certainly became the Boss of his own life, without ever losing sight of his hometown roots.

In Springsteen’s music Javed finds his own story: the working-class neighborhood, unemployed father, blue-collar expectations with white-collar dreams, and the raw talent to make them happen. I’ve never been a big fan of Bruce Springsteen; most of his music is too loud and his raspy voice is too harsh for me. But as The Boss’s lyrics became the soundtrack to Javed’s young life, with key phrases popping onto the screen during key moments, I gained new insights and appreciation for Springsteen as a poet. He may not be the Boss of me, but he certainly became the Boss of his own life, without ever losing sight of his hometown roots.

That’s the key to Javed’s identity too — he discovers how to stand up for himself, follow his own dreams and choose his own path without rejecting his foundation as a Pakistani growing up in working class England. Through the inspiration of Springsteen’s music Javed finds his own voice and a way to embrace both his future and his past.


Editor's Note: Review of "Where’d You Go, Bernadette," directed by Richard Linklater. Annapurna Pictures, 2019, 130 minutes; and "Blinded by the Light," directed by Gurinder Chadha. Bend It Films, Ingenious Media, Levantine Films, Rakija Films, New Line Cinema, Warner Brothers, and a slew of others (Chadha was persistent in getting this film distributed!), 2019, 118 minutes.



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