One of the December Criterion releases in the UK is the 2005 family drama The Squid And The Whale. It is set in New York during the 1980’s and uses elements and recollections from director Noah Baumbach’s childhood growing up in the city.
On the outside the Bekman family look like an ideal unit. Two intellectual parents and their sons have a good life. Just under the surface the problems are there. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) announce that they are splitting up after seventeen years together. They have been unhappy for a number of years and a separation was inevitable. It throws the boys lives into turmoil as they become pawns in their parents game.
This is a fantastic film that does everything right. It is a very small drama in terms of the scope of the film. There are only about eight speaking parts in the whole movie. So in order for the story to work the characters have to well-developed and interesting. The cracks in the family are shown superbly as the family plays tennis together. Without much dialogue we get a real flavour of the personalities on screen. It sets up the rest of the film without the need for any expositionary scenes.
Bernard is like a force of nature. He is a published author working as a professor and has a position on absolutely everything. He is opinionated and forceful. He doesn’t like to lose, be it a game of tennis or an argument about authors. The character knows what he is doing and frankly doesn’t care. In his career he peaked early and has struggled ever since to get back up. If you are looking for a film where the main character changes due to the journey he is on then you are watching the wrong film.
The character of Joan is an alternative to the overbearing Bernard. She is coming out of the shadow of Bernard and is gaining some success of her own. Her realisation that she doesn;t need Bernard anymore is already in place before we see them. It is only now that she has the courage to go for what she wants.
The parents are massive influences on the kids. Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) looks up to his father to such a degree that he has the same opinions as him. He shows a streak of passive aggressiveness that can be traced directly back to Bernard. It is all a show. He spouts facts based on nothing, steals songs and passes them off as his own. Through Eisenberg’s performance you can see that this is a young man who is lost and has no identity. The younger brother Frank (Owen Kline) plays up in more traditional ways by drinking beer, masturbating in the school library and running away from home.
The film was shot in Brooklyn on a tight schedule and an even tighter budget. It has that rough and ready feel of an indie film. The camera work is all hand-held which really adds to the atmosphere of the piece. It makes the movie feel intimate and places the audience right in the middle of the drama.
Overall, an impressive drama that focusses on the well-developed characters.