Friday, February 09, 2007

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

This is one of those independent films that hardly anyone has heard of, but which is adored by critics and has won several awards. It's a quirky comedy slash drama.

Set during the 1980s, The Squid and the Whale tells the story of the Berkman family. The family comprises once successful writer Bernard (Jeff Daniels), up and coming writer Joan (Laura Linney), and their two sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). The family goes through some tough times when Bernard and Joan get divorced and share custody of the children. The film is essentially about the personal turmoil that engulfs each of the characters after the separation, and the silly and painful situations that subsequently occur.

The parents, being writers, are extremely literate. Bernard is a pretentious and insufferable man who always maintains an air of superiority, the type of guy who'll criticize the judge for being an idiot if he doesn't win a contest. It's natural then that he has a hard time dealing with the rejection of his latest manuscript. Joan is a more modest person, but her failings are also apparent - her adulterous ways were part of the reason for the divorce. There's a lot of ill will between the two, and a lot of ugly pettiness as a result; but there's also a hint of shared feelings of regret. Walt takes after his father, and tries to act like an intellectual; he also blames his mother for the separation. Frank takes his mother's side, and is less interested in arts and more interested in tennis and has a fondness for his tennis coach Ivan (William Baldwin).

The film is about how fucked up families can be, and how messy parental break ups and squabbling can have profound effects on children. Although real life certainly isn't as funny, most things that happen in the film ring true. The kids pick up some of the attributes of their parents, and you can see them changing as the film progresses. It reminds me of the Philip Larkin poem 'This Be The Verse'.

It's a very funny and honest film that isn't dumbed down and reduced to a bunch of contrived set pieces. The comedy comes from the characters. The story is semi autobiographical - it's based on the experiences of writer / director Noah Baumbauch. The characters are well rounded and realistic, although they are certainly unconventional. The dialogue is smart and funny, and despite a very short runtime the film packs in quite a bit of content. Boambauch maintains a fine balance between humour and pathos and never veers too far down either path. The performances are excellent across the board, very natural and without any showboating. In addition to the actors already mentioned, Anna Paquin and Halley Feiffer also play prominent roles.

The Squid and the Whale is an excellent film that deserves to be seen. I'm not going to say that I loved it - I didn't really connect with it. I guess it hits a bit too close to home in some ways as well, and real life just ain't as funny. Lots of people who saw it did love it though, and I'd say it's worth checking out.

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