Depression is a sneaky thief. It doesn't deplete our joy all at once, choosing instead to pick away tiny pieces over a period of time. By the time we find ourselves drifted completely away from the ones we love and shut ourselves to the outside world, it's hard to comprehend how we got there in the first place. The moment we stop blaming others, and ourselves, when we can finally pinpoint the real problem with an open mind, it's a revelation. But the road back to recovery is a perilous journey, and regardless of the help we get, our own resilience and faith in self must weather it alone.
Once a genius architect and now a stay-at-home-mom, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) is under the illusion that everything about her day-to-day life is normal. She just happens to hate pretty much any human interaction, is distant to everyone except her daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), does all her business through a virtual assistant that turns out to be a serious danger to her and her family, hoards prescription pills in a bottle, and is a hair away from becoming full-on agoraphobic. She was such a renowned new face in the world of architecture twenty years ago, that she was given the MacArthur Grant to build her dream house. Once that project ended in tragedy, she convinced herself that her daughter would be her big project from now on. But a true artist cannot contain their creativity for very long, no matter how hard they try to ignore it. Like Bernadette's ex-colleague Paul (Laurence Fishburne) tells her, "Artists must create. Otherwise, they become a menace to society".
Bernadette is on her way to becoming just that. Her willful ignorance of safety guidelines concerning her decaying home results in a mudslide that destroys her judgmental neighbor Audrey's (Kristen Wiig) house. That and a couple of other warning signs forces Bernadette's workaholic husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) to trigger an intervention, which goes so horribly that Bernadette decides to run away from home and disappear. Her plan is to prove that she's not afraid of people, and she can pull herself out of the weeds. The most direct way to achieve that goal is to go on a family trip to Antarctica by herself, a trip that's been giving her untold anxiety for months.
I'm surprised that Richard Linklater, who specializes in stories and characters that show a joyous, curious, and witty outlook on life, who inserts a natural joie de vivre to his work, regardless of the possible tonal heaviness of his subject, decided to direct and co-write this adaptation of Maria Semple's book. While Linklater inserts moments of dry humor, he doesn't undermine the true destructive nature of depression, sticking to a grounded depiction that steers away from easy melodramatic touches. Blanchett's performance is unsurprisingly the film's bedrock. The way she did in Blue Jasmine, Blanchett captures exactly how people struggling with such mental illness will do their damnedest to appear "normal", while their body language expresses anything but.
As astute and engaging as Where'd You Go, Bernadette is, the uneven structure gets in the way of proper character and story development. The film is essentially missing a second act. The obvious inciting incident of the story, Bernadette fleeing her home to go on her adventure, happens around the one-hour mark, capping an obviously overlong first act. From there, Linklater cuts immediately to Bernadette at her destination. We move from her depths of depression, to her finding new purpose in life without much of an arc in between. The same goes for the sub-plot about estranged Bee and Elgie rediscovering each other as daughter and father. The emotional switch seems to happen a bit too suddenly.
Right when we're tired of the rain-soaked, borderline monochrome Seattle scenes, Linklater cleverly switches to awe-inspiring shots of snow-covered (Enjoy it while it lasts, folks!) and peaceful isolation of Antarctica. This visual aesthetic also of course mirrors Bernadette's evolving mental state. The 1080p transfer perfectly handles these two extreme looks: The Seattle scenes showcase great contrast and gray levels, while the Antarctica scenes are bright and colorful, without being blown out.
This is a dialogue-heavy character piece, so don't expect much from the surround channels when it comes to the DTS-HD 5.1 track. However, the soothing ambient sounds of the Antarctica scenes certainly accentuate the experience as we aurally sense Bernadette opening up to the world.
Bringing Bernadette to Life: This is a 14-minute featurette where Blanchett talks about the process of portraying a character struggling with depression.
Who is Bernadette?: A 4-minute EPK that explains the character.
We also get a Gallery and a Trailer.
Apart from the structuring issue (How ironic that a movie with an architect protagonist would suffer primarily from such a problem), Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a thoughtful, tough, but eventually optimistic depiction on how despair isn't the end of the road. It's just a roadblock we must recognize before moving onto brighter paths through hard self-reflection.