Crazy lives on a continuum.
Mental illness is rarely a matter of being just fine on one hand and asking your filing cabinet out to tea on the other. Sure, sometimes the answer’s easy, obvious. But often, it’s not so simple to define. And sometimes, it depends on who’s defining it.
Ask Bee, the daughter of Bernadette Fox, about her mom, and she’ll emphatically tell you that her mom is just fine. Oh, certainly Bernadette’s a little eccentric, a bit high-strung and (let’s just say it) pretty antisocial. But when they’re together, they joke and laugh and sing their hearts out to old ’80s tunes.
Bernadette may not be perfect, but she’s Bee’s best friend. Nothing crazy about that, is there? “I love Mom just the way she is,” she says.
Elgie, Bernadette’s wealthy, brilliant husband, loves her too. But he remembers the woman she once was—and who she’s now become. And that worries him.
Bernadette was once a gifted architect—one who set the profession on fire and seemed destined for greatness. But Elgie’s fasttracked career at Microsoft, a crushing professional setback and family issues pushed Bernadette in a different direction. She hasn’t designed a building in years.
Now Bernadette barely sleeps. She stalks the halls of their sprawling Seattle house in the gloamy hours, letting worry upon worry stack like LEGOs. She stopped taking most of her medication a while ago. Now she pours the pill in one massive bottle, marveling at their colors.
And things seem to be getting worse. Elgie gets a police report about how Bernadette ran over a neighbor’s foot. He spies her in a pharmacy, passed out on a couch inside. He listens to her rant about Seattle’s litany of evils, fume over small slights. The confident, beautiful woman he married has become brittle and confused. She’s gone wrong somehow, and he needs to figure out how to make it right again.
One night, Bee reminds her parents of a promise they made years ago: If she got straight A’s through middle school, they’d give her anything she wanted. Now, Bee announces, she wants to take a family trip to Antarctica.
Bernadette is horrified. She hates travel. She despises boats. She’s terrified of getting seasick. Why, she barely leaves the house as it is. The thought of traveling to Antarctica, by boat, in rough waters, with a bunch of strangers? “I’m not good when exposed to people,” she admits.
But Bee desperately wants to go, and Bernadette desperately loves her daughter.
But will she survive the trip? Will anyone else?
Bernadette does love Bee, and we see that deep affection displayed often. But it’s Bee’s reciprocity of that love that takes center stage here. Bee is fiercely defensive of her mother’s sanity and ability—lashing out like (ironically) an angry mama bear when she feels that Bernadette’s being threatened in some manner.
Admittedly, Bee’s affection sometimes transcends both prudence and logic. But in the context of family—where we’re supposed to love people without condition—there’s something beautiful in her fierce loyalty to her struggling mother. And when Bernadette (under some extreme but not insurmountable conditions) runs away from Elgie and Bee, Bee’s pursuit of her to the literal ends of the earth is beautiful and, in its own way, inspiring.
Even when Bernadette leaves with barely a backward glance, and even when Elgie begins to believe that Bernadette is dead (perhaps by her own hand), Bee holds out more than hope. She’s convinced her mother would never leave her. Not really.
“We love each other,” she says. “And she would never do anything where we’d never see each other again.”
Then there’s Elgie. Sure, he doesn’t defend Bernadette like Bee does; and Bee doesn’t always give him the credit he deserves. But viewers here hshould: Indeed, I would imagine that most mental health professionals would laud Elgie’s level-headed response to Bernadette’s increasingly worrisome behavior over Bee’s uncritical, passionate defenses. And the sacrifices he makes for both of the women in his life should not be minimized.
This family drama is also dotted with characters that help and support Bernadette (sometimes against their own inclinations) and lovely little insights. Including the following:
[Spoiler warning] For much of the movie, we’re left to wonder not only just how crazy Bernadette might be (and whether she might be sent away for in-patient psychiatric care), but also whether Bernadette and Elgie’s marriage can survive at all. In an end narration, Bee clears up that uncertainty by telling us about penguins that supposedly mated for life. Turns out, she tells us, that’s not absolutely true: Just 80% of them do. “The ones that stay together are making a choice,” she says. “Just like Mom and Dad.”
Much earlier in Bernadette and Elgie’s relationship, Elgie gave Bernadette a Catholic medallion depicting St. Bernadette: She’s a young, 19th-century girl who is said to have received 16 visions, or “miracles,” from Mary. That medallion becomes something of a talisman for the couple’s relationship, with Elgie comparing St. Bernadette’s miracles with achievements in his Bernadette’s life.
The first “miracle” was Bernadette’s first eye-catching house, decorated largely with bifocal glasses. The second was her famed “20 Mile House,” built entirely from resources within just 20 miles of the site. The other 14 miracles, they say, were wrapped up in their daughter, Bee, who was born with some very serious health problems but who still survived. (We see that medallion at the end of the movie, and someone suggests that Bernadette has more miracles in her still.)
Elgie and Bernadette’s Seattle home used to be a sprawling religious school for girls. We see some religious iconography here and there, and the family dog gets stuck in the building’s old, cross-festooned confessional. (Bernadette has to break an outside window to get the dog out.)
Bernadette texts and emails her high-tech personal assistant, Manjula, who’s apparently located in India. Bernadette suggests at one point that Manjula work her “Hindu magic” to procure her a fishing vest. There’s a suggestion that there’s a “design flaw” in humankind. At one point, someone refers to Bernadette as the “b–ch goddess of architecture.”
As Elgie’s relationship with Bernadette decays, he relies on his new assistant, Soo-Lin, more and more—hinting at what some might characterize as an emotional affair. Bernadette is clearly jealous, and she speculates to a neighbor that it’s just a matter of time before the two become lovers.
While picking up Bee from school, Bernadette peels out of the parking line quickly to avoid speaking with Audrey, her hyper-involved neighbor. The car may make contact with Audrey: She falls to the ground dramatically, and she later alleges that Bernadette ran over and broke her foot (even though doctors can’t find anything wrong with it, and Bernadette swears the tire never touched Audrey’s toes).
Bernadette also (passive) aggressively prunes her blackberry bushes (at Audrey’s suggestion), which results in weakening the hillside between her and Audrey’s house. During a heavy rain, a wave of mud breaks down a retaining wall and washes into Audrey’s house during a party. Both women engage in angry, profane screaming matches.
One character kicks down a door. Some believe that Bernadette is suicidal. We hear that Bernadette suffered a series of miscarriages before Bee was born, and Bernadette talks about those experiences in graphic, painful detail.
Characters use the f-word twice and the s-word about five times. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—“, “douchebag,” “crap” and “sucks.” God’s name is misused about 14 times, while Jesus’ name is abused once.
Elgie, Bernadette and others drink wine on occasion. Bernadette, terrified of getting seasick, seeks a powerful anti-nausea medication she can bring with her on the trip to Antarctica. When she tries to get it at the pharmacy, though, they tell her that the drug she’s asking for is a pretty strong anti-psychotic medication as well, one that requires additional doctor approvals before they’ll allow her to have it. Bernadette opts for less potent medication instead.
Perhaps just as problematic, if not more so, are the drugs that Bernadette doesn’t take. She’s weaned herself off many of the meds designed to regulate her mood and poured them into one gigantic bottle. She says she likes the look of them all together, while others suggest that her hoarding medication implies suicidal tendencies.
Audrey’s son (whom she adores) smokes with a caterer at a party, possibly marijuana. Someone later tells Audrey that her son gets high at school pretty frequently.
[Spoiler Warning] The only person that Bernadette really confides in is her Indian assistant, Manjula. Turns out, “Manjula” isn’t a person at all, but rather a Russian identity theft ring that, through a naïve Bernadette, has collected scads of passwords and bank account numbers. When Elgie learns about the scam (through the FBI), he realizes that Bernadette needs some serious help. The FBI’s visit (as well as a subsequent intervention), sends Bernadette over the edge. On the pretext of going to the bathroom, Bernadette escapes the house and runs away.
Bernadette and neighbor Audrey are locked in a power struggle filled with catty moves and retaliations. We learn that Audrey’s son, whom she adores, frequently makes fun of her behind her back. Neighbors gossip. We hear references to urination.
I didn’t have high hopes for this movie, which is based on a 2012 novel of the same name by Maria Semple. On the surface, it looked as though Bernadette would be locked in a well-worn storyline of me-focused rediscovery—a plot that today often involves sacrificing family and duty for self-fulfillment. And indeed, one of the movie’s trailers specifically suggests as much.
“I think what happened to my mom was that she got so focused on her family that she forgot about herself,” Bee tells us.
That line, though, is nowhere to be found. Instead, the film begins with Bee telling a very different story—how we humans are wired to always look for the next great thing. We buy a diamond necklace (Bee says) and it gives us joy. A year later, you look at it and say “this old thing.”
“I think that’s what happened to my mom,” Bee says. “She forgot to see all the good stuff in her life.”
That sets us up for a far different, and far more nuanced, movie. Yes, rediscovery of self is still a huge, and central, part of this story. But Bernadette’s discovery is done in the context of a family who loves her—and a family that she loves in return. This is a story about the war that most of us feel—that quiet battle between passion and duty; the tension between what we feel we’re called to do and what we’re asked to do.
The film reminds us that we’re built with certain talents and gifts. And even though it doesn’t explicitly stress our Builder—the God who gave us those gifts to glorify Him and enrich others—it does remind us that we waste those talents at our peril. We see how Bernadette’s struggles are largely born from her inability and unwillingness to embrace the gifts she’s been given.
“People like you must create,” an old architect friend tells Bernadette. “If you don’t, you become a menace to society.”
But we don’t use those skills in a vacuum. And for many of us, our gifts and talents are sometimes sublimated beneath the responsibilities and relationships we develop through life. Other times, the gifts we have become opportunities to glorify ourselves, not God. Through all, the film suggestions, our families and friends—and the responsibilities they entail—keep us grounded. They remind us what life and purpose really should be about: sacrifice and service and loving well.
And here’s the thing: Bernadette—both the mother and the architect—understands this. Others praise her gifts. But whenever we hear her talk about her own architectural work, it’s all in the context of how it’ll serve the people who use it. “I never considered myself a great architect,” she says. “I’m more of a creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares.”
And even as Bernadette rediscovers her love for architecture, she doesn’t lose sight of the people she loves. Yes, she’s been given great gifts … and the greatest, she knows, is her daughter.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette, isn’t about choosing career over family, or choosing family over career. It’s not, I don’t think, about punting traditional gender roles (though some viewers, admittedly, could interpret it as such). Instead, this drama tells us that we were made for something. And when we find and pursue that purpose, we’re better able to serve the people around us.
The film has its problems. But underneath, it reminds us of the importance of our God-given gifts … and the people who are closest to us as well.
Be sure to read our review of the book connected to this movie: Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.