Part of growing pains is the struggle of trying to figure out who you are. When we go through transitions in our lives, it can shake up who we thought we once were, so navigating that growth and coming to terms with our new selves can be terrifying, to the point that we fight that transition to maintain recognizing the person in the mirror. We may fear that what we once identified as is gone forever, and we are starting at the beginning all over again. This struggle with juggling identity is a central theme of the film Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) is an infuriating neighbor who doesn’t belong confined to suburbia. While at the library admiring the architecture, she struggles to hold a conversation with a fan of hers. When she goes to the pharmacy to pick up her prescription for the Antarctica trip, her anxiety is clear, talking with the tech and pharmacist. She appears awkward and uncomfortable, provoking a conversation about the designer of the pharmacy’s chandelier. Later, Bernadette puts up an obnoxious sign on her land to antagonize her neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig), with her blackberry bushes taking over every aspect of her property to the point that they spill over into Audrey’s. The roots and vines are all over the walls of the house, even springing from through the floor of Bernadette’s home.
Ironically, those blackberries are the only thing holding up the hillside. When Bernadette removes them, the hill collapses from the heavy rain, devastating Audrey’s house. Bernadette describes her mental state as being in the weeds is fitting, as when her depression and anxiety spillover, it destroying those around her who she considers close. Her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) saw this as a cry for help, and that something must be wrong with Bernadette because it can’t be the world’s fault his wife is unable to co-exist within it.
Bernadette throws herself in her role as a wife and mother, constantly self-aware of the issues that she faces. While talking to her daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), Bernadette cries, describing her anxiety and life as hard. Yet her daughter is supportive, understanding, and says she likes her mom the way she is. Although Bernadette comes across as cold and inconvenienced by people in general, the love for her family is genuine. She hates to be around people, yet agreed to go on a trip to Antarctica for her daughter.
Bernadette plans the trip and tries to psych herself into being excited as to not to let down Bee. Despite her hatred for people, she wants to support Bee in seeing her choreograph a cute, cheesy performance by 1st graders. After four miscarriages, Bee was her miracle baby. Being born with heart issues, Bernadette was dedicated to the identity of Bee’s mother, and taking care of her, losing herself in the process.
While kayaking, Bernadette meets Becky (Troian Bellisario), who is conducting research. While talking, Becky mentions that they are going to be building a new research station at the South Pole, 90 South. Designing is Bernadette’s first love, so out of nature, she asks what materials the builders are planning on using, a callback to how earlier in the film, she mentioned dropping out of architecture 20 years earlier. While talking with an old colleague and friend Paul (Laurence Fishburne), he tells her that people like her must create or they become a menace to society, advising Bernadette to find a project. It is only in the moment that she catches herself wanting the challenge of designing at the end of the earth that she allows herself to be excited again, realizing that she has become an artist who has stopped creating.
The outside world cannot begin to understand Bernadette’s genius, so she volunteers to design 90 South and volunteer a veterinarian to remove her wisdom teeth so she can design the structure. Most people think it would be torture to go long periods without showering or being around other people. For Bernadette, it is just another Tuesday, even stating that she’s been training for this for the past 20 years. The world sees her hoarding prescriptions and putting the pills in a jar because of how the colors resembled a sign of suicide. In reality, it is her genius trying to escape in any way it can because she has suppressed it for so long. Her depression is rooted in being bored and not challenging herself to design in unique ways. Her wild rants about Seattle and obsessing about Los Angeles is all about her energy focused on something other than architecture. Failure did not sink its teeth in Bernadette- complacency did.
In the end, Bernadette vows to be an artist and less of a menace, admitting that it is not Seattle’s fault she became the way she is now. In our lifetime, we can take on new identities that we never were before. Like Bernadette, we can learn how we can be all of them at once and not have to leave our favorite ones behind.