When I read “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” years ago, I was surprised to find that so many of my peers also found this yet-to-become-popular 2012 book so appealing. Now a bestseller, the charm of the novel sneaks up on you, part of the reason being that it isn’t written as a straight narrative. Instead, author Maria Semple strings together email exchanges, article clippings, police reports and the stray handwritten note to accompany just bits of first-person accounts by tween Bee (technically Balakrishna) Branch. Even though its titular character (played by a brunette bobbed Cate Blanchett with a struggling American accent) is MIA for half of the book, the reader finds a relatability in her ramblings and a compelling story in the reactions of the others.
The plot stays true: Architect Bernadette Fox, who’s been mourning the destruction of a house considered her greatest achievement for decades, begins showcasing erratic behavior in the weeks leading up to her daughter’s departure to boarding school. Feuding with neighbors and other parents, falling prey to an overseas financial scammer and huddling in social anxiety, Bernadette suddenly disappears. The story is one of coming to terms with where your life has led and finding yourself again while playing with themes of loss and parenthood in a fresh way.
The test for director Richard Linklater in adapting it for the screen, of course, was getting all that across -- which the book does masterfully in its own way -- in a traditional medium.
“The book doesn’t really lend itself to a film,” Linklater told USA Today. “It became a challenge of how to physically manifest a lot of that dialogue and find the right forum for it, but that was also the fun part.”
The creativity in how to get this done was respectable. To simulate the right tone of Bernadette’s long-winded emails, Linklater had Blanchett employ a talk-to-text thing with a Bluetooth earpiece. Instead of giving Bee a portfolio of headlines about her mother to explain the 20 Mile House, she finds a video essay open on Bernadette’s computer, which plays to the audience as if they're watching the special themselves.
The consensus among critics is that the end result didn’t completely pull off the challenge, which I wouldn’t disagree with; Semple’s talent, after all, is steeped in how she can paint a picture for her audience in this unconventional way, and the book is ultimately in a league of its own compared to the on-screen counterpart. But even though some plot points were missing from the movie (Soo-Lin and Elgin’s one-night-stand pregnancy, Bee’s stint at Choate, smaller nuances of Bernadette’s relationships), major thematic elements were adapted to play out pretty beautifully.
Like Bernadette’s meeting with an old architect friend, when he tells her, “People like you must create. If you don’t create, you will become a menace to society.” Or how Bernadette’s drives to and from school with Bee showed her at her happiest -- even if she didn’t know what her life had become, she knew being Bee’s mom was her best self. I especially liked Bernadette’s description of herself as not an architect, but a “creative problem-solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares” (which, of course, came directly from the book).
One of the best parts about seeing this novel adapted for the screen, though, was the opportunity to play out the Fox/Branch clan’s trip to Antarctica. The story begins, after all, with Bee convincing her parents to take her to the ends of the earth, and so [spoiler] of course, that’s where we find Bernadette at the end. Even though Greenland and some probable green screen subbed in for the southernmost continent on film (budget stuff), I suddenly have an urge -- no, a craving -- to kayak between glaciers and toddle around with little penguins.
All in all, the film ended up finishing with a near-perfect blend of whimsy (Blanchett did bring all of Bernadette’s offbeat subtleties to the surface) and sincerity.
“Hopefully we’ve created something that is strange and absurd and still has the absurdity of the novel, but also gets to what the book is deliberately pushing away, which is having to look at yourself,” Blanchett told Entertainment Weekly.
Moms will appreciate this movie, because doesn’t everyone want to run away from suburban life and PTA brunches every once in a while? Millennials will relate to the “What am I meant to do with my life?!” crisis. And for anyone still skeptical, it’ll at least make you consider a cruise to Antarctica.