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New films: Where’d You Go Bernadette?, Blinded by the Light

Cate Blanchett in a still from Where'd You Go Bernadette.
Where’d You Go Bernadette?
Directed by Richard Linklater

Throughout Richard Linklater’s filmography, there are films that deal more with experience and growth than with complex narrative plots. Whether it be bullying on the last day of school, laying a friend’s son to rest, childhood in general, or a chance encounter one evening, they’re often about people dealing with change and realization of who they are and what matters to them.

Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) is introduced to us as a mother and wife (initially she isn’t that well defined as an individual), living an apparently eccentric life in Seattle, in a vast house with leaking rooves and an annoying neighbor (Audrey, played by Kristin Wiig). Her daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) is pondering boarding school, which hardly seems surprising given the borderline chaos around her, and we discover her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) is high up the executive food chain in a tech company and somewhat detached from home life.

But it’s also clear that all is not quite right with Bernadette. She’s cranky, hates other people, talks more to her online, remote, personal assistant than to her family, and seems to harbor some animosity towards almost everything and everyone, and certainly Seattle. Her own backstory is complex and explains much of this, but better to let that play out in time.

Multiple family dynamics come to a crux when Bee backs her parents into a figurative corner and gets them to agree to a family trip to Antarctica to celebrate her successes in school. But this slowly freaks out Bernadette, in particular, as it conflicts with her dislike of being around other people and, to her dismay, cruise ships have other passengers.

Slowly this all leads to a tipping point, where dysfunction and distrust meet head to head. But this is one of those films where choices and opportunity for solutions reflect wealth and power. The viability or appeal of a family cruise to Antarctica, especially with last minutes changes in flights and boat reservations, aren’t within most people’s frame of reference or economic viability. And so, for many viewers, this might almost be a socio-economic fantasy story.

This slight fantasy angle also comes through as everything seems a little too neat or contrived. The circumstances and the solutions are all very convenient. At one point in the film, Bee tells her mother that she (Bernadette) would likely hate an event she (Bee) is involved in, as something that might cause death by an overload of cuteness. But the film itself feels a little like that at times.

But this is primarily Bernadette’s story, or at least her character arc, as she begins to face the fact that her life has become something she never wanted and can barely even recognize as her own, not so much as a parent and spouse, but professionally – and that it’s her life to take back. The title being as much something that she herself wonders herself as a question asked by those around her – and Blanchett is appealing in that duality and role. Whereas, Wiig is caught in a slightly awkward place between a straight performance and something which demands a little nuttiness, without ever quite settling on one versus the other. And Crudup’s performance is sufficiently flat that almost regardless of what he begins to say at the start of a sentence, it’s hard to know where he’s going with it. He might be on the way to saying “…and that’s OK” or “…and that’s absolutely not OK and I can’t stand for it.” He becomes a difficult to read as a result.

Overall, “Where’d You Go To Bernadette?” is an appealing concept, marred by slightly inconsistent execution. There are scenes that look suspiciously like they’re shot against green screens (whether they are or not), and flashback photographs and videos that appear as though they might have benefited from a little more Photoshop polishing. As somebody who likes films about personal discovery, and who was eager to see it to discover if it might have had useful application in a life balance college course I teach, I felt very much as though it was a film that should have been connecting to me much more successfully than it did. And while I admire the idea and the attempt, it feels a little unfinished or rushed.

Moviebrief

Blinded by the Light” is the latest film to celebrate the work of one specific musical act – in this case the works of Bruce Springsteen. Javed (Viveik Kalra, in a strong and appealing performance) is the son of a working class, immigrant family, whose mother takes in garment finishing piecework to supplement the income of his father’s car factory job. Everything in Javed’s life seems overwhelming and constraining, in a way that nobody could ever possibly understand, until he’s introduced by a school friend to the music and, especially, the lyrics of Springsteen – and he immediately identifies with this unlikely hero singing of being downtrodden on another continent.

Unlike the recent “Yesterday,” which turned the Beatles catalog into a work of fantasy, “Blinded by the Light” is based on a true story and real characters. And where the former film feels like a neat premise lacking an equally neat exit strategy, the latter is more finished as it reflects actual outcomes and lives. It’s a neat reflection of the nature of shared experience, however seemingly unlikely and separated, and the power of art to uplift the human spirit.  

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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