A film review by Craig J. Koban

RANK: # 10

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE jjjj

2005, R, 88 mins.

Bernard Berkman: Jeff Daniels / Joan Berkman: Laura Linney / Walt Berkman: Jesse Eisenberg / Frank Berkman: Owen Kline / Sophie: Halley Feiffer / Ivan: William Baldwin / Lili: Anna Paquin

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach

"The other night I ate at a real nice family restaurant.  Every table had an argument going."

- Comedian George Carlin

 

The weakest films are ones that sort of callously hide behind their emotions; they are almost dishonest and coy, often to the point of misleading their audiences as to their soul purpose. 

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE is not one of theses films.  There is not one artificial or false note in its 85 minutes.   What it does it does better than just about any other modern drama about the family unit – it’s brutally unflinching and honest (almost to the point of being repulsive and acidic) in its portrayal of the dissolution of a marriage and family.  There is real hurt and pain underlining the characters in the film.  They speak how real people probably would under similar dire circumstances, but their sentiments never feel forced, phony, or contrived.  This film rises above any artificial sentimentality it could have generated.  Instead, it’s such a simple, modest and powerfully mounted film that touches a raw nerve that very few films are capable of doing.  It moved me considerably.

The film hit me more than it would others, I suppose.  I myself am a child of divorce so I know intuitively what it’s trying to say about the fragile condition of all family members as they try to adapt to dealing with newfound hardship.  THE SQUID AND THE WHALE elicited similar feelings from me directed towards its personas that I experienced directed towards my own mother and father when they revealed their plans for separation when I was 18.  At times I hated the characters, then understood their motives, and then later resented them even further.  I was taken in with their plight and then grew  quickly scornful of how self-obsessed some of them were.  The film unquestionably is frank and specific in how it details how every member of the family has been affected by the separation of the mother and father (so few films are as democratic with their characters as this one).  Yet, it also demonstrates how each person – whether it be a parent or a child – is also reduced to engaging in self-destructive behavior that blindly hurts other family members in the wake of a separation.

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE wisely understands that – during a painful separation between spouses – there is one indisputable truth: every family member feels justified and right in their feelings, especially when it comes to the mother and father.  The problem with this is the fact that the family unit’s ability to come to a mutually amicable understanding of their current situation proves to be incredibly difficult.  The real tragedy during an incident like this occurs when the children are too young to legally decide who they want to spend time with, but they are old enough to voice their concerns and opinions on the matter.  This, of course, only further adds fuel to an already growing fire.

There is a resonating and strong voice behind THE SQUID AND THE WHALE.  It was written and directed by Noah Baumbach and while watching the film it’s clear that he personally speaks through several characters.  Baumbach knows these people and knows intuitively how they all interact and respond to one another during their emotionally trying times.  There is such a powerful sense of truth behind the film, which can no doubt be attributed to the fact that Baumbach himself based the film loosely on his own experiences growing up. 

The film is about a family with two writers at its head (Baumbach himself was the son of two writers - novelist Jonathan Baumbach and film critic Georgia Brown).   The year is 1986 and the troubled and disillusioned family is seen living in Brooklyn.  The marriage in question is between an Ivy-League intellectual and elitist Professor named Bernard (the brilliant Jeff Daniels) and his wife Joan (the equally remarkable Laura Linney).   Both Bernard and Joan are strong, but flawed people.  The husband is unquestionably brilliant, but is also completely arrogant and self-obsessed.  He has such an annoyingly avant-garde feeling of distance between himself and everyone else in the public that he thinks are his intellectual inferiors.  He despises philistines and anyone that has an even remotely populist taste for anything.  In short, he’s an unmitigated snob who thinks he’s superior.

Mom is perhaps no better.  Joan comes across (at least at first) as being fairly sympathetic.  She is an aspiring author herself (Bernard has published many critically acclaimed books in the past) but she constantly feels under her husband’s shadow.  He is so wrapped up in his own sense of high self-worth that she feels that he worships his own books and mind first and her second.  She then reaches a point in her life where she desperately wants to claim independence from him once and for all.  She has written a book that appears to be on the verge of being published (which drives Bernard bonkers, seeing as his last book as been rejected) and – to make matters worse – she has looked for comfort and satisfaction outside of her marriage…and on more than one occasion. 

Of course, all of these deeply pent up feelings make it look like the couple are headed to a nasty separation and divorce.   Like all stubborn parents, the two can’t even tell a good lie to their kids to prepare them for this eventuality.  When one of the sons discovers that Bernard has slept on the sofa bed all night, he responds that “The bedroom bed is causing his back to ache.”  When the son questions why he would sleep on a bad sofa bed that would make his back even worse, Bernard’s reply is the equally pathetic, “Naw…this bed is actually better.”  Sure.  Right.

The day then comes where the parents bring their young children into the living room for a “family conference.”  Of course, Bernard tells them that they will have one after school, but refuses to spill any other details.  The children are Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), the teenage son and eldest child of the family and the younger, 10 year-old Frank (Owen Kline).  They do not take the news altogether well.  Equally unsettling is the news that the parents want joint custody.  They seem to have a plan that sounds perfect (one omission is how to handle the family cat on a daily basis).  Alas, the teenage son is very wise to the notion that joint custody is not as “perfect” as it sounds.  “How do you guys get equal custody when there is only 7 days a week,” he rightfully asks.  Good question.

Things do not go for the better for the family.  Bernard rents a shabby apartment that is way too far away from Joan’s place, maybe because Bernard is as cheap as he is a snob (he complains he could not afford a closer apartment).  Of course, the parents duke it out over issues of time and their rights to the children without even realizing that the children just may want to be with one parent over the other on a particular day.  Walt, who completely idolizes his dad, resents his mother deeply and wants to have nothing to do with her.  When he discovers that his mother committed adultery, he lashes out at her and calls her a whore.  Yet, he is so wrapped up in his own hero worship of his father than when he soon begins to shack up with one of his own students (Anna Paquin), he initially is not as turned off.

Walt is essentially a younger version of Bernard in the making and that suits dad just fine.  Bernard has impregnated his son with so many of his own ideals that it grows hard for Walt to forge an identity on his own.  Sure, Bernard may be right in teaching some virtues (like the fact that GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a better novel than A TALE OF TWO CITIES; I've read 'em both and agree), but he places himself on such a higher level of authority that he fails to allow his son to grow up on his own.  Walt seems to parrot his own father’s words so much that even he begins to see a problem.  During his first brief adolescent relationship with a girl, he tells her to “stop being difficult” during a particularly awkward moment.  Dad has also said this…to his wife.  This relationship between father and son manifests itself into deeper themes in the film.  These people are sort of cut-off from authentic feelings, so much that they speak to each other more like therapists and less like ordinary people.

What’s even more curious about the film is how both parents sort of sexualize their surroundings, almost as a form of seductively luring the children to their side.  Bernard brings in the young and pretty girl to live with him and Walt, perhaps realizing that Walt has eyes for her.  Joan, on the other hand, reveals her affairs to Walt a bit too frankly, maybe thinking that brutal honesty is the way to appease him.  She further complicates matters when she shacks up with Frank’s tennis instructor.  What’s fascinating is the level of trust that the children have in their respective parents and how both parents have no clue how they are damaging their kids with their destructive behavior.  There is a developing level of hostile aggression between all family members that ensues.  Soon, both Bernard and Joan forget to “parent” (Frank alone is caught saying expletives that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush in front of his father and is never punished).  It gets to the point where a vicious cycle emerges where every family member lashes out at one another in cruel ways.

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE does something absolutely correct – it never takes sides.  It’s equally critical of all of the characters and never once begs for our overt sympathy of any of them.  There are moments where we look at some of the members of the family with heartfelt sincerity and then later feel intense levels of spite towards them.  One thing is for certain – this family will not completely survive this separation, and the film never tries to make any other concessions.  It does not offer us up false hope, nor does it condescend the audience into offering even an ambiguous level of optimism.  THE SQUID AND THE WHALE is a stark emotional journey and – to a small degree – we do get a sense that most of the family will eventually get over the separation and get on with life.  However, they won’t do so without having some very pertinent emotional scars to carry.

The film’s aesthetic trappings are crucial to reinforcing its overall tone.  THE SQUID AND THE WHALE is a raw film and is thusly one with a loose, improvisational style.  Camera work is simple in set up and execution (this is not a polished looking film, per se) and the story is not another standard, run-of-the-mill tale that goes on a linear progression from point A to B to C.  The narrative is appropriately episodic and disjointed.  Scenes are unconventionally strung together and are largely idiosyncratic.  They begin and abruptly end and don’t build to large crescendos.  People may come out of the film thinking that individual moments build to nothing and proceed without any semblance of cadence and flow.  Yet, that’s the point.  THE SQUID IN THE WHALE is supposed to offer us glimpses here and there of this family, kind of like we are eavesdropping on their most personal of moments like some sort of sneaky voyeurs. 

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE is an example of an incredibly authoritative and moving drama done with modest strokes.  The film is a very grim look at the absurdity and pathos of a family suffering through divorce and it has a sharp perceptivity that allows it to stand firmly apart from other conventional family dramas.  It is an unblinking and unsettling portrait of a family in perpetual crisis mode, so much so that the makers know intuitively how even the most miniscule of moments in the everyday lives of the family members can have disastrous results.  In an age where the movies cop out and never show us their true colors, it’s kind of oddly uplifting to see a film like THE SQUID AND THE WHALE shed away pretentiousness and instead be harsh, disturbing, and most importantly…honest.  You may not like what the characters in the film do or say to one another, but you simply can't overlook the film's distressing sincerity.  It's one of 2005's most relentlessly bleak and involving of films.

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