‘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. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.