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Bernadette isn’t the heavy hitter it could’ve been, but at least it tackles an interesting big idea.

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Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) on the lam
Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) on the lam

It’s a quirky, offbeat kind of story. Lurking beneath the light comedy and gentle social satire is a more serious topic surrounding the contrasts between belonging and alienation. In this case, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett, Thor: Ragnarok) is an eccentric architect who’s abandoned her career in order to keep the family ship afloat in Seattle.

She hates Seattle.

And she hates the hum-drum seclusion of home life.

But she loves her daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson in a promising feature debut), and her husband’s a good guy, too. That’s Elgie (Billy Crudup, Almost Famous), an in-demand Microsoft exec who’s done the TED Talks circuit and made the rounds socializing his idea for the next generation in machine learning: mind reading.

Things start off with Bee talking about her mom. She talks about how people lose sight of the good things in life and focus instead on the “danger signals.” The opening suggests the movie will offer up some insights into the human condition. It sounds like it’s going to go deep. But, the journey to finding Bernadette turns out to be largely superficial — although there’s just enough there to make it a trip worth taking.

Ultimately, Where’d You Go, Bernadette (note the grammatically correct lack of a question mark in the title) gets so many of the details right, but the main story — the arc of her disappearance — loses some punch as it gets condensed into a movie-friendly timeline.

St. Bernadette

Bernadette’s stopped seeing the joy in life and she’s turned into something of a neighborhood pariah. She doesn’t play well with the other school moms – most notably Audrey (Kristen Wiig, 2016’s Ghostbusters). That leads to a rift between the moms and a bit of cunning sabotage by Bernadette.

As an architect, she knows better, but she succumbs to Audrey’s demands to clean up the blackberry patch surrounding her house — an old school for girls that very well might deserve to be demolished were it not for Bernadette’s penchant to take abandoned properties and turn them into glistening new jewels of delightful design.

The cleanup ultimately leads to a watershed moment — literally and figuratively. It plays out to a more hilarious effect in the movie’s trailer, but in the final full cut it’s simply one more incident of things falling apart for poor Bernadette.

With the FBI on the prowl thanks to Bernadette’s growing social anxiety disorder and reliance on a suspicious off-shore white-glove virtual assistant to handle all the things Bernadette no longer wants to do (like being around people while shopping) and a marriage counselor looking to help bring Bernadette back into the fold, it’s time for Bernadette to disappear.

Trouble is, there really isn’t all that much drama in her departure. It’s not quite the deep dive hinted by the setup.

Time After Time

In this one, savor the relationship between Bernadette and Bee. There’s terrific chemistry between Blanchett and Nelson. Narratively, there’s an incredible back story that drives their relationship — Bernadette had four miscarriages and the fact Bee lived beyond adolescence was something of a medical miracle.

That’s all great stuff.

And there’s a documentary within the movie that’s pure movie gold. It’s not a mockumentary, but rather a well-staged fake documentary about Bernadette’s shining, shimmering and short career. The documentary marks the 20th anniversary of Bernadette’s 20 Mile House. The theme for that one: all materials were sourced within 20 miles of the house.

It’s a great piece of moviemaking that Bee refers back to as she struggles to understand why her mom – her best friend – would run away. Within the confines of the documentary are some great cameos, including a very young Laurence Fishburne, who gets the same “young again” age treatment as his character in Ant-Man and the Wasp.

The immaculate attention to detail continues with an exploration of another one of Bernadette’s iconic projects, the Beeber Bi-focal House. That one used eyeglass frames and lenses as a super-chic variant of chain mail.

That documentary is a wonderful exercise in pure creativity, something the larger narrative arc (based on the novel by Maria Semple) doesn’t quite have. And that’s a bit of disappointment, considering director (and co-author of the screenplay) Richard Linklater has a talent for characters, comedy and unconventional storytelling. His catalog includes the Before trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, School of Rock and Boyhood, among so many others.

Ultimately, Bernadette’s challenge is that she’s a creative type and creatives need to create. Without that driver, without that release, she turns into a menace to society (well, at least a high-class irritant to an upper-crust society). The lesson learned: It’s on you to make your life interesting.

Advice well-taken. But it could’ve used a little more constructive — and forceful — argument.