THE SQUID AND THE WHALE: Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Producers Wes Anderson, Peter Newman, Charles Corwin and Clara Markowicz. Executive producers Reverge Anselmo, Greg Johnson, Andrew Lauren, Miranda Bailey. Cinematographer, Robert Yeoman. Editor, Tim Streeto. Production design, Anne Ross. Music, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. Starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and Own Kline. With Anna Paquin, William Baldwin. Samuel Goldwyn Release, 2005. R. 88 minutes. 2005 awards: Sundance (Noah Baumbach for screenwriting, dramatic directing) and Gotham (best ensemble cast). 2005 screenplay awards: New York Film Critics Circle, National Board of Review, LA Film Critics Association (tied with Dan Futterman (Capote).
As the list above attests, writer, director Noah Baumbach’s latest film is a critical success. It should also be a popular success because the issues touched on by The Squid and the Whale — divorce and its effect on children — are not going away anytime soon. Sixteen-year-old Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg) prefers to believe his parent’s separation is his mom’s fault. Younger brother Frank (Owen Kline) prefers mom, Joan (Laura Linney), who talks to him like a parent does. As Frank puts it in the opening scene, an explosive tennis match, “Me and mom versus you and Dad.”
The kids both do and do not expect the split. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) often confides in Walt, who is partial to Dad’s position. Bernard is a writer and college writing teacher who’s critical of everything and everybody. But the veneer of sophistication is so alluring that befuddled Walt wants to be just like him. Actually, affecting Bernard’s attitude doesn’t work out well for Walt’s social life with his peers. Walt can’t see his father is mean-spirited, stingy with his feelings, self-absorbed and shallow.
At 12, Frank doesn’t try to figure out what’s going on. He just likes Mom better. And he likes her new boyfriend, Ivan (William Baldwin), who is also his tennis instructor. Ivan calls Frank (and Walt) “brother,” which annoys the hell out of Bernard, who feels superior to him.
The drama is set in Brooklyn in the 1980s, just when Joan’s literary career is taking off — a story in The New Yorker — and Bernard’s is sinking. The parents split custody of the kids in a complicated day-on, day-off pattern that Bernard insists on sticking to every day, while Joan wishes for a little flexibility. Circumstances work so that the boys discover what they need to know, but each has some rough moments first. Who said growing up was easy?
It’s excellent to see Daniels in a movie that isn’t a comedy, playing a role with depth. Although Bernard is an ass, Daniels embodies as much humanity as the role can absorb. And I was amazed by the star quality Anna Paquin delivers as an adoring (underage) student of Bernard’s, who moves into his house. She could probably carry a whole film by now. After all, her first Oscar was for Jane Campion’s The Pianist, when she was only 11 years old. I also loved Paquin’s sparkling performance as a groupie in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
Linney is down-to-earth in this role, uncomplicated, sensitive and loving. She brings warmth, not anger, to her portrayal of Joan, reminding me of her amazing performance in Bill Condon’s Kinsey, where only her amiable affection warmed the stoic title character, played by Liam Neeson. And Kline keeps Frank real. He’s quite a talent — natural, focused but playful.
Eisenberg starred in a film I haven’t seen, Dylan Kidd’s Roger Dodger, in which he played a 16-year-old visiting his uncle, the womanizing Campbell Scott. Critics said Eisenberg stole the film. He demonstrates quiet, understated confidence in The Squid and the Whale, a strange title that comes from Walt’s memories of a diorama seen during trip to the Museum of Natural History with his mom that surfaces in a therapy session.
Baumbach created the screenplay from incidents in his own life, and as good memoir requires, he put himself in the place of each character to see the story from different perspectives. “While you’re shooting, it’s very easy to keep a distance,” he said. “But there would be smells or colors that would suddenly give me a connection to things in my childhood in a way that I can’t really describe. I would always take it as a good sign when I had those reactions — it felt like I was on the right track in some way.”
Yes. It’s a real pleasure to see a filmmaker get it right, especially coming of age, which so easily becomes sentimental. Treat yourself to the real thing, opening at the Bijou on Friday, Dec. 16, with my highest recommendations.