The Squid and the Whale is an ensemble piece whose main adjective is spoken by Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels): difficult.
The marriage between Bernard and Joan (Laura Linney) disintegrates. Common enough. What is uncommon is that both of them have Ph. D.’s in Literature, so, if nothing else, it’s pretty obvious that the language of the broken dynamic will be . . . difficult. The victims (and they are victims) are the two boys: Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). The parents share joint custody. By itself, this is perhaps common but no less confusing, but since each child identifies with a different parent, it increases the tension. Walt quite literally mimics his father where he can. Frank doesn’t identify with anyone, but is going through serious sexual growth with no assistance or education. Bernard and Joan are wrapped up in themselves but not to the extent that they ignore the boys, but it does mean that they don’t pay close enough attention to either. This becomes evident when they have to attend teacher conferences for both boys (Frank smears semen around his school; Walt plagiarizes a song he plays at a talent contest and has stopped doing school work altogether).
The movie works, oddly because the characters are basically unlikeable. Bernard has no trait to like. Joan is insensitive. Walt tries to face fears he doesn’t understand—which is why he mimics his father; at least that way he had a personality he can control. Frank is having an existential crisis at the beginning of puberty. The Squid and the Whale is honest. Too many films would focus on a wronged character but all characters in the film are wronged. And all of the characters, of course, do the wronging, too.
The film is extremely emotional and its short 75 minutes are enough—much longer and either the intensity would fade or become too much to handle. The intensity grows from the way the Berkmans either avoid their fears and failings or try in haphazard ways to face them. I used the hackneyed term, honest, so I may as well fall on my sword and use the word human. The Berkmans are human and to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, it is embarrassing to be human.
All performances are top shelf. I watched it specifically for Laura Linney (who almost never fails in my opinion), but everyone else does a great job acting and reacting. Owen Kline was particularly good given the caliber of actors he had to stand toe to toe with. Auteur Noah Baumbach either got very lucky or was able to pull these performances from the cast.
Due to the type of film, it is no easy task to recommend it. As I said, the film is only 75 minutes long and I think any review would be short due to this—unless you want to do a close analysis of each relationship. If you like any of the actors or you don’t mind lengthy tension I imagine The Squid and the Whale will be one you remember for a while. If none of this is true, it is probably best to find a different film.
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