2019’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the nineteenth film from Richard Linklater, and one of the few women-led films in the writer-director’s catalog. Where’d You Go, Bernadette, adapted from a 2012 novel of the same name by Maria Semple, opts to change the novel’s narrative structure. The movie’s fresh framework kills the book’s central mystery and most of the resulting conflict. Not quite deep enough to serve as a character study, Where’d You Go must settle for an affable tale about an architect’s midlife crisis.
Misanthropic, pedantic, and idiosyncratic Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) lives in a converted school in Seattle with her unhappy husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup), and their daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson). A brilliant architect, Bernadette stepped away from the profession at the height of her powers for unknown reasons (one of a handful of mysteries that Where’d You Go maintains long enough to develop audience interest).
Unemployed and reclusive, Bernadette occupies her time by stirring the pot in her neighborhood—directing special focus toward next-door neighbor Audrey Griffin (Kristin Wiig)—and corresponding via voice-to-text email with Manjula, her personal assistant in India. When Bee requests a family trip to Antarctica, Bernadette’s erratic behavior finally warrants an intervention. In the middle of the intervention, Bernadette vanishes.
As with The Goldfinch, 2019’s other flop of a literary adaptation, Where’d You Go’s production values disguise its quality. Cinematographer Shane F. Kelly (Boyhood) and production designer Bruce Curtis (known for Bernie—an overlooked gem in Linklater’s filmography) provide a glossy prestige that Where’d You Go’s script can’t live up to. Bernadette’s marvelous career in architecture is celebrated with grand wide shots of one-of-a-kind houses. Her depression is conveyed through her ramshackle house in gloomy Seattle (filmed in Pittsburgh). (I mean where, pray tell, can you find that much property in Seattle?)
While the book implies that Bernadette may be dead, the movie wastes no time building intrigue around her whereabouts. Mere frames after her disappearance, Linklater has already informed us of her actual plans. The movie’s marketing campaign gave away the game in spoiler-filled trailers, but Where’d You Go hardly manages to ask its titular question before eagerly offering the answer.
The film’s most rewarding aspect is its pivotal mother-daughter relationship. There’s a mutual adoration between Bernadette and Bee, and their connection is genuinely sweet. Where’d You Go, Bernadette’s lasting legacy may be its introduction of Nelson, who portrays assured teenage optimism without naivety. Blanchett, meanwhile, seizes the opportunity to portray a suppressed and deflated genius, a role not typically offered to women.
Tremendous performances by Blanchett and Nelson buoy an aberrant story of a brilliant woman’s midlife crisis. The resilient spirit of its locations and characters make Where’d You Go, Bernadette worth the expedition, but Linklater’s latest will inspire thoughts of what could’ve been and likely little else.