The Squid and the Whale tells the story of a couple falling out of love, and the harmful residual effects a separation has on their children. It’s common tale in America, where the staggering divorce rate of 50 percent continues to grow with each passing day. What makes the film special, though, is that this all too familiar circumstance is told with such sincerity and authenticity.
Based off the personal experiences of director Noah Baumbach and his brother, he takes his personal story – set in the autumn of Brooklyn in 1986 – and makes it a universal one.
The family on screen contains an assortment of personalities (as with any family). Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is ostensibly a cultivated teenager who casually talks shop about the major and minor works of Fitzgerald. Frank (Owen Kline) is a perplexing little kid who can’t quite handle the break up, and as a result acts inappropriately (i.e.: he curses, talks back to his family, and masturbates at school).
Naturally, the idiosyncratic children spawned from their parents, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney). Bernard is a once upon time successful author who has yet to return to form. Joan is a progressing writer who has had been professionally fortunate as of late. The former is a judgmental and cynical figure that has a son (Walt) that adores him. The latter is a dissatisfied and emotionally confused individual that has a son that adorer her (Frank).
The organic flow of each scene is just a testament to the talents of gifted filmmaker/screenwriter Noah Baumbach. Autobiographical to Baumbach, each conversation feels as though there is intent and care behind it.
However, while this invaluable story could’ve never been told without Baumbach, it’s the tour-de-force of a cast that makes the film. Jeff Daniels (once again) establishes himself as one of the best working actors around. Jesse Eisenberg shows an abundance of promise. And Laura Linney gives her character a down-to-earth vibe that makes her character identifiable.
It’s difficult to pinpoint and articulate why The Squid and the Whale affected me the way it did. Perhaps it’s because I’ve gone through the heartache of a divorce, and have bared witness to the pessimistic mentalities of writers that plague both parents in the film.
But The Squid and the Whale doesn’t only offer up suffering. While heated conflict is aplenty, affection is still shown on all fronts. And much like the psychological and physical journey of severing the ties from the ones you love, Baumbach’s perceptive and observant account of divorce is one of unmatched honesty and feeling.