An intimate, sharply observed, semi-autobiographical story about a circa-1986 Park Slope, Brooklyn, family falling apart, writer/director Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale is a sad but funny film about -- among many other things -- the process all kids go through of seeing their parents as flawed human beings instead of flawless gods.
This common coming-of-age process is made all the more complicated for brothers Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline) Berkman because, as the movie opens, their parents are about to embark on a separation that seems to have been a long time coming.
Baumbach sketches this nuclear family's inherent network of rivalries and alliances in a deft opening scene of a family tennis match. The elder son Walt is paired with his overbearing novelist father Bernard (Jeff Daniels, barely recognizable under a heavy beard), who encourages the boy to exploit his mother's weak backhand, thus neatly establishing both the tension between the couple and Walt's penchant for following his father's lead. The mother, Joan (Laura Linney), is paired with the younger son Frank, who clings closer to her. When Bernard and Joan split, these rivalries and alliances deepen, with each son acting out in ways that mirror the worst traits of the parent they identify with.
Daniels' Bernie -- a college lit prof and increasingly unsuccessful novelist -- is almost monstrously unlikable, his desperate pretension, mean-spirited passive-aggression, and deep solipsism making him toxic to most people in his life, save for the still-adoring Walt and a comely, partly star-struck student (Anna Paquin, in a variation on the precocious student she played in 25th Hour). But Walt takes his lead, repeating drivel about books he's never read to impress and/or intimidate fellow students.
Linney's Joan is the more grounded parent, her nascent writing career just taking off, but she has a tendency to be a bit too direct about her sexual affairs, which leads to Frank acting out sexually at school.
Baumbach is remarkably fair to each character in this family drama, even Bernie, whose insufferable arrogance never masks his humanity. It's only in the end that we see that, in this portrait of the artist as a young man, it's been Walt's journey that the film really belongs to.
The Squid and the Whale
Opening Friday, December 9th