(originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on April 14, 2006)
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline
Autobiographical films can be hard to make, as they always threaten to overwhelm the original story. But when they work well, something magical can happen. Such is Noah Baumbach’s new film “The Squid and the Whale”, based on his childhood experiences in Brooklyn, New York during his parents’ bitter separation and divorce.
Baumbach grew up in the same neighbourhood as Woody Allen and went to the same high school (Midwood, where a number of key scenes of this film were shot). But Baumbach’s Jewish family life is removed from Woody Allen’s by almost four decades and a major cultural shift. “The Squid and the Whale” is drama-comedy about growing up in an intellectual Jewish household where the 1980’s parents are so focused on their own desires and lives that their two sons can barely make a dent in their self-absorption.
From the opening scene in an indoor tennis court, this family’s cracks are showing; it is only a matter of time before they become visible to the family members themselves. Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels, almost unrecognisable with a thick beard) is a university teacher of English and creative writing whose published works are becoming less and less popular, now being eclipsed by his increasingly successful wife Joan (Laura Linney), attaining her own fame as an author. When Bernard and Joan announce to sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline) that they are splitting up and sharing custody of them in a very politically correct (and astonishingly convoluted) way – down to moving the cat, the comfort zone of this family is smashed.
Young Frank (age 12) identifies with his mother, starts to become a closet alcoholic and sexually obsessed. Walt (age 16, and the obvious stand-in for Baumbach) stays loyal to his father, stumbles awkwardly through early relationships with girls and fools everyone – for a while at least – as to his song-writing capabilities.
Bernard moves out, eventually takes in a student boarder (played by Anna Paquin). Joan starts a relationship with local tennis coach Ivan (William Baldwin), and the kids get more confused than ever.
Despite its short length (a bare 81 minutes), this film’s acclaimed screenplay will probably be studied for years in university film schools. Hidden beneath these literate and articulate characters are people in real pain, and anyone who has gone through a painful relationship breakdown will find much here to identify with. Without fanfare and remarkably little melodrama this film deftly uncovers everyone’s self-deceptions, conflicts and confusions.
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Linney and Daniels giving mature and polished portrayals. But for me the film belongs to Eisenberg, who somehow captures what it means to be 16: the boy-man, the attempts to be cool and be respected, but the deep need for nurturing and attention. While the anguish is almost too difficult to bear, the film remains thoroughly watchable with a tender, sly and faintly humorous twist to every scene – sort of a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” filtered through the Brooklyn-Jewish comic sensibility. The result is most unusual, entertaining and thought-provoking.