‘Bernadette’ on the big screen: How mothers fare on film

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

Traditional mothering roles are giving way to ones featuring heroism and, as in “Bernadette,” independence. What does the shift signal about society?

Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures
Cate Blanchette (left) stars as Bernadette and Emma Nelson as daughter Bee in "Where'd You Go, Bernadette." Director Richard Linklater has called the book on which the movie is based “an intense portrait of motherhood.”

Some of the most powerful recent moments in movies for me have been the ones in which mothers have been at their most righteous: Regina King in “If Beale Street Could Talk” fiercely seeking out the woman who falsely accused her daughter’s incarcerated fiancé of rape; Sienna Miller in “American Woman” pushing through her grief following the unsolved disappearance of her daughter; Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong in “First Man” insisting Neil tell their boys he may never come back from his moon mission; Sarah Greene as the Irish mother in the underseen “Rosie” battling moment to moment her family’s homelessness. These women are the true superheroes in our movies. 

Now to the mother mix comes the movie version of Maria Semple’s 2012 bestseller “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” The novel was a jaunty mishmash about an agoraphobic Seattle architect who retreated from her stellar career and has now settled into uneasy domesticity with her indulgent husband, Elgin, and fiercely loyal 15-year-old daughter, Bee. Faced with an impending Antarctica family vacation, a dream trip for Bee grudgingly promised to her by her parents, Bernadette abruptly disappears.

Starring Cate Blanchett as Bernadette, Billy Crudup as Elgin, and Emma Nelson as Bee, the movie Richard Linklater has fashioned from Semple’s novel – which incorporated emails, letters, phone transcripts, and police reports from multiple voices – could have taken its cue from any number of colorations. He chose, according to an interview in Entertainment Weekly, to focus on what “the book was really about at its emotional core, which was an intense portrait of motherhood.” 

With works ranging from “School of Rock” to “Boyhood” and the great “Before” trilogy (starting with “Before Sunrise”), Linklater is perhaps the most gifted, and certainly the most versatile, director of his generation. But he falters in “Bernadette” because, ultimately, his sensibility may be too conventional, too sane, to encompass the human maelstrom that is Bernadette. And Blanchett’s performance, while intensely watchable, is also a species of shtick. She’s done this sort of thing before, most recently in “Blue Jasmine,” and her attempts at psychological disjunction are starting to look rote. By design, her performance, and the movie itself, doesn’t descend into the dark turbulence of Bernadette’s psychoneurosis. To do so would upset the film’s enforced composure. It’s a safe movie about people who don’t feel safe in this world. 

The film does nevertheless raise a pertinent issue: How can we portray motherhood in the movies in ways that make sense to us now? Allowing, of course, for vast exceptions, the traditional mothers, stretching back to film’s beginnings, have firstly been wives, helpmates, homemakers, deeply maternal, deeply sacrificial. The apex of this was probably Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in “Stella Dallas,” which demonstrated how talent can transform a tearjerker into art. The exceptions, such as Faye Dunaway’s scabrous turn as Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest,” proved the rule.

Despite movies like “Lady Bird,” in which the vitriolic mother-daughter bickering only highlights how much they love (and resemble) each other, what we are increasingly getting now are films in which motherhood is portrayed as a fraught profession. Being a mother, as in “Bernadette,” can wrongfully wrench you away from your creativity. Her separation from her family – and this is a modern touch – is intended to be liberating, not alienating. But the real issue is this: Mothers are supposed to protect us, to shoo away the monsters from under the bed. But how do mothers keep their children safe, keep themselves safe, when the world has seemingly become such a minefield?

A movie like “Room,” where a kidnapped mother, played by Brie Larson, ruthlessly protects her little boy from a real-life monster, is perhaps the clearest metaphor for this modern-day maternal survivalism. In “Ben is Back,” Julia Roberts is rived by another monster, her beloved son’s drug habit; as is Mary Kay Place in “Diane.” In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Frances McDormand, furious that her daughter’s murderer has not been caught, turns herself into a figure of almost biblical wrath.

The heroism of these mothers reverberates in a world where their traditional roles can no longer stand up to the enormity of their challenges. Something more is needed. Whatever their virtues and faults, such films represent signposts to a new direction. 

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