Midway through Richard Linklater’s film, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) vanishes, sending her husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup), and daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), on a frantic search to Antarctica to find her. But the real Bernadette – a brilliant Los Angeles architect once ranked alongside such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van Der Rohe – had disappeared a long time ago. After a house she spent three years building was demolished by the new owner, a tacky TV game show host, Bernadette fled La La Land and moved to Seattle, where Elgin took a job with Microsoft.
Being a genius is a gift and a curse. And Bernadette is a bona vide genius, having won a $500,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation. But like so many talented artists, Bernadette doesn’t suffer fools, and she finds many of them in Seattle, in the tech community and at the progressive school Bee attends. (She calls the mothers at the Galer Street School “gnats,” annoying pests that need to be swatted away.) Hiding within the walls of her family’s home, a 12,000 square foot brick building that was once a Catholic girls school and is still in need of renovation, Bernadette shuns live human beings, instead restricting her communication to an online virtual assistant from India, whom she calls Manjula.
There are reasons for Bernadette’s mental state that go beyond losing that L.A. structure, dubbed the Twenty-Mile House, because she insisted on only using materials that could be sourced within 20 miles of the construction site. After moving to Seattle, Bernadette suffered several miscarriages. Bee was born with a serious heart defect that necessitated multiple surgeries. Although Bee is now healthy, even the scar on her chest having faded, the mother-daughter bond created during those early years remains strong.
The event that triggers Bernadette’s meltdown is that trip to Antarctica. Bee reminds her parents of their promise that if she earned perfect grades in middle school (at Galer Street, that meant straight Ss for “Surpasses Excellence,) she could have anything she wanted for a graduation present. Rather than the pony she requested when she was younger, Bee wants to take a family trip to Antarctica over the Christmas holiday vacation. They agree, although Bernadette signs on reluctantly and immediately begins to regret the decision. As she tells Manjula, tasked with not only booking the trip, but buying the clothes and supplies they will need, the cruise involves being with 149 strangers on a ship and sailing through Drake’s Passage, the most turbulent stretch of water in the world. Bernadette suffers from sea sickness and the medication she asks Manjula to arrange for her turns out to be the psychotic drug, Haldol. The pharmacist instead convinces Bernadette that Xanax and a patch will do the trick. Suffering from sleep deprivation, Bernadette falls asleep on the pharmacy’s sofa, in full view of Elgin, who happens to be passing by on is way to lunch with several Microsoft co-workers. Seeing Bernadette in such a state convinces Elgin that his wife needs help and he arranges an intervention with Dr. Janelle Kurtz (Judy Greer), director of psychiatry at the nearby clinic, Madrona Hill.
The intervention quickly goes off the rails and Bernadette escapes to her neighbor Audrey’s house. It’s an unlikely hiding place since Bernadette has had several unfortunate run ins with Audrey. Turns out that Audrey (a terrific Kristen Wiig), the leader of the Galer gnats, is as troubled as Bernadette. Audrey lies when Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), Elgin’s admin and another parent at Galer, shows up looking for Bernadette. Audrey also drives Bernadette to the airport so she can catch a flight to Antarctica. When Bee finds out where her mother has gone, she convinces her father they need to find her.
While Bernadette dreads the Antarctica vacation, the trip turns out to be her salvation. Artists need to create and she discovers the perfect project amid the penguins and ice floes. (The photography is stunning with cinematography by Shane F. Kelly. Signs of global warming, however, are sobering.) Blanchett, virtually in every scene, demonstrates her acting genius, gradually coming out of her torpor as the wounded Bernadette, morphing into a woman with a mission and a purpose. Crudup, who has more to do here than in the other film released today, After the Wedding, risks being typecast as the supportive member of an out of control marriage. Nelson seizes her breakout role with enthusiasm, showing Bee as deserving of all those Ss on her report card but, like her mother, not one to suffer fools.
The screenplay by Linklater, Holly Gent, and Vincent Palmo Jr. sticks close to the bestselling novel by Maria Semple, the narration alternating between Bernadette and Bree. In the book, the story was primarily told through emails, invoices, letters, even school memos. In the film, part of the story is told in a documentary about Bernadette, with cameos by Laurence Fishburne, Steve Zahn, and Megan Mullally.
“There’s no way one person can ever know everything about another person,” Elgin tells his daughter, as they both struggle to understand Bernadette. Bee’s response, “it doesn’t mean we can’t try,” resonates.
Photo Credit: Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures