By Afra Nariman
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, Anna Paquin
Two brothers get caught in the middle of their writer-parents’ divorce, leading to problems in the lives of each kid. The tension in their family continues to rise as the film goes on.
Noah Baumbach, a master at capturing the reality of family drama, wrote and directed The Squid and the Whale, which metaphorically earns its title from an exhibit at the New York American Museum of Natural History. The film is partially autobiographical and is bluntly realistic. It tells the story of a family, headed by parents who are each intellectuals and writers in their own right. The father, Bernard (played by Jeff Daniels), is a literature professor who’s career as a writer is not going as well as it once did. On the other hand, the mother, Joan (played by Laura Linney), is experiencing a rise in her success as a writer. Their two sons, Frank and Walt each pick a side in the divorce. Walt (played by Jesse Eisenberg), the eldest son, religiously supports his father and blames his mother for the family breaking up. His little brother, Frank, is much more subtle about his opinions but clearly supports his mother. The film illustrates how children are shaped by their parents and their experiences.
Frank begins to act out in school (inappropriately), he begins to curse, drink alcohol and exhibit various other signs of a troubled child. Walt acts out as well, but not as blatantly as his little brother. He is clearly unsure of himself in many moments of the film, in his personal life most of all. He looks up to his father with a blind loyalty and makes every decision in his life based on what he thinks his father would think of it, even though his dad is noticeably unhappy and gives him questionable, often times selfish and destructive advice. His obsession to live up to his father’s standards intellectually, in his personal life and relationships leads him to a level of insecurity in who he is as his own person, and ultimately causes him to emotionally hurt both himself and those around him. Sometimes there are obstacles that can feel suffocating at times and hinder your ability to be happy, think straight and be free in your actions. That is how Walt seems to feel as the pressure of his parents’ divorce takes a bigger and bigger toll on him.
The Squid and the Whale isn’t necessarily unprecedented. It isn’t as powerful as as say, Baumbach’s 2019 masterpiece Marriage Story, but it’s an incredible film nonetheless. Although it doesn’t do any singular thing extraordinarily, it does numerous things extremely well. This family drama encompasses all the emotions that life has to offer. Incorporating realistic portrayals of sadness, joy, anger, comedy and more; the film is able to engage with the audience on an emotional, personal and for some, relatable level.
The Squid and the Whale has a depth to it that makes you think about your own life; who you are and why you are the way you are. It makes you think of the ways in which your own experiences have shaped your values and your personality. This was Noah Baumbach’s first great film. Although it tells the emotionally erratic story of a family dealing with the tension that comes with divorce, it is told elegantly and with a certain fluidity that keeps the film grounded and composed. The Squid and the Whale can be watched from many different angles and is remarkable from each one.