I am not too familiar with Noah Baumbach’s work. Actually I haven’t seen any of his films apart from the ones he wrote for Wes Anderson, so that was my only barometer before going in to “The Squid and the Whale”. And because of that there was a certain fear that Wes Anderson’s unique aesthetic would rub off too much on Baumbach’s directorial work, but while these are small Anderson-like touches in this film (which is certainly expected and natural since the two are frequent collaborators, even in “The Squid and the Whale”) thankfully that is not the case on a larger scale.
That concern was further alleviated by a story that is much more grounded in reality than any of Wes Anderson’s work, and a story that goes in to very adult subject matter which it presents from a unique point of view. The subject matter in question being divorce and the unique perspective is that of the two boys that are caught right in the middle of it.
And that is “The Squid and the Whale” in a nutshell. Of course the film is much more complex as it deals with the frustrations and confusions that come along with divorce, both for the boys and their parents, but it also deals with the sexuality of adolescent males. It’s a fairly rich subject matter and I must confess that it is presented in a very well constructed screenplay with some magnificent characters. But even though the script is very good, for me the actors carry the film completely.
The standout performance is the one that Jeff Daniels gives. He plays the father who is a frustrated writer and a college professor; basically a pretentious, self centered jerk with a superiority complex. The role is there on the paper, sure, but Daniels makes him genuinely empathetic and in many ways charming. My favorite scenes of the film are in fact the ones where he gives relationship advice to his sexually anxious older son (an outstanding Jessie Eisenberg) as these scenes are both very funny and quite revealing to his own lack of understanding of the opposite sex. So there are quite a few funny moments and they’re a great balance point to the more somber themes of the film.
On a more technical side the “The Squid and the Whale” is adequate. There’s nothing special going on here but it does have a nice, warm, and primarily handheled look. Both the cinematography and the directing of “The Squid and the Whale” in general are very reserved, letting the actors and the script do their thing. But for me visually it does not stand out very much from other modern indie films. I’d hate to call it “by the book” because I enjoyed the film very much, but on purely cinematic terms that’s exactly what it strikes me as.
Still I did really enjoy “The Squid and the Whale” and it is clear that this was a very personal story for Noah Baumbach. I feel like everything I’ve read about the film so far goes in detail on how it is very autobiographical for the director so I am not going to add anymore to that repetition. What I will say is that this film is a solid little gem with some outstanding character work and performances, as well as sincere drama at its core.
Jeff Daniels - Bernard Berkman
Laura Linney - Joan Berkman
Jesse Eisenberg - Walt Berkman
Owen Kline - Frank Berkman
William Baldwin - Ivan
The Squid and the Whale on IMDb