Reviewed by GREG KING.
The Squid And The Whale combines pathos with wry humour in a film that compassionately explores divorce, joint custody and the damage done to the children caught in the middle. The title may seem a bit obscure, especially given the subject matter, but its significance becomes apparent at the end of the film, and metaphorically has to do with a childhood memory and facing up to your fears. The Squid And The Whale marks an auspicious directorial debut for Noah Baumbach, who has collaborated on writing films with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, etc). It is clear he has a rather eccentric and dry sense of humour, but also a rather acerbic perspective on life.
The film is semi-autobiographical, based on Baumbach’s own experiences when his parents divorced in 1986, and it looks at the emotional impact of joint custody and how it affects two boys. Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) is a noted author who is experiencing creative difficulties, while his wife Joan (Laura Linney) finds her writing career about to take off. Both are over-achieving, over-educated, intellectual snobs, who slowly poison the two boys with their competitiveness, intellectual snobbery, snide observations, disenchantment, and their own warped values and attitudes.
Sixteen year old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) sides with his father and takes on many of his affectations, while the more sensitive Frank (Owen Kline, son of actor Kevin) sides with his mother. The two boys begin to exhibit obsessive behaviour as they try to come to terms with their confused feelings. It is rare to find two juvenile actors capable of such sensitive, mature and complex performances as both Eisenberg and Kline deliver here. Eisenberg (who was also superb as a naïve teenager learning about love in Roger Dodger) is excellent and gives a very soulful and affecting performance as Baumbach’s fictional counterpart. Kline acquits himself beautifully in a very emotionally and psychologically demanding role.
The two adult performers also acquit themselves superbly. Daniels delivers what is arguably the finest and most complex performance of his career as the embittered writer. Linney is also strong and delivers a more sympathetic performance as the mother who desires her own identity and independence, and whose career is starting to overshadow that of her husband.
Articulate and well-written, The Squid And The Whale is a powerful, emotionally gripping, blackly comic and engaging film that resonates with painful truths and cathartic moments. But it is also confronting at times and will not be suited to everybody’s tastes. At the preview I attended an elderly couple found the language and adult concepts too frank, and quickly fled from the cinema.