Yet another Oscar contender I’ve been aching to see before it was even an Oscar contender, “The Squid and the Whale” presents and upper middle class family of intellectuals and prominent athletes at war with one another. At the beginning of the film, I was rather worried this would become yet another “Ice Storm” rip-off except set in New York, but “The Squid and the Whale” is a simple but engrossing parable of a family set in half, and their children having to choose sides. “The Squid and the Whale” is a basic tale of two parents so at odds with one another that it follows down to their children whom are also at war and don’t even seem to realize it. Noah Baumbach’s writing is very enlightening with this simple slice of life of a family at war, and really doesn’t depict anyone as a villain, though the story does veer to certain directions here and there.
With shades of Wes Anderson, Baumbach’s story focuses on a small family and their impending split. Bernard and Joan are the parents of sons Walt and Frank, two brothers whom never really click with each other, and for good reasons. “Squid and the Whale” is a rather insightful examination not only of divorce and its imminent complications, but its effects on the children when their parents decide to battle among themselves. Walt and Frank do everything their parents tell them, both basic products of their parents, and they choose sides more and more as they age, and inevitably you just know something has to give. The parents have perhaps the most interesting personalities as they’re both vastly different people and headed in different directions.
Daniels is very good as the overbearing, impotent pompous jack ass of a father, Bernard who feels like he has to relegate anyone and everyone who is better them him. We’re never sure what he wants with his children, but the one thing we know is that he doesn’t want them to be better than he is, and that’s why he grooms his oldest, Walt who submits to his grooming. He grooms Walt to be his equal, instead of letting him go on his own free thinking ability which would cause him to be better intellectually. Bernard likes to hold his intellectual precedence over his family. Meanwhile, Joan is a much more submissive personality who is an intellectual rival with Bernard and blooming in to a potentially famous writer, but her caring toward Frank lessens throughout the film. Linney gives a great performance as this woman who is conflicted and feels dwarfed by Bernard’s influence over his sons.
The dichotomy between Bernard and Joan is really engrossing, how they take their kids and pit them against one another many times without realization. The children however (strong performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) seem to have already picked sides, and though their decisions seem stable, the reactions to them are more or less destructive. Frank, the youngest, prefers to be like his mother and individuate his thinking, and Walt wants to be like his father. Frank is on the way to becoming a potential sexual deviant growing increasingly curious with sex and is passed back and forth so much he becomes extremely self-loathing, while Walt finds himself with a girl named Sophie who he’s attempting to groom while eying Bernard’s in-house boarder (Anna Paquin); Walt does nothing but mimic his father’s every sentiment, opinion, and thought and never really immerses himself in literature based on his father’s approval.
The symbolism such as “Hey You” becoming symbolic of this family, the title becoming a metaphor for the parents two completely different beings at constant war, and the exchange of intellectual put downs from Bernard become the truly fascinating material. As the film went on I could almost feel Baumbach running out of plot, so by the climax I thought to myself “Either someone will kill themselves, or someone will experience a life altering tragedy”. You’ll have to see the film to know which one it ends up as, but by the climax, I was disappointed. Mainly because the twist involving a character was incredibly predictable and manipulative.
For a film so intent on portraying this family’s struggles as realistically as possible, the twist comes off as derivative and brutally cliché. It was hard to swallow, and irritating of Baumbach asking us to buy it. But Baumbach’s ultimate goal that he succeeds in is that he shows how we do become products of our parents, and many times we don’t become our own people, just vague unfamiliar reflections that we can change only if we decide. In spite of a manipulative twist in the second half I saw coming from Mars, “The Squid and the Whale” is a very engrossing and fascinating observation of divorce, its effects on children, and the selfishness of parents to split their children apart and pit them against one another if they know it or not and groom them to become reflections of them. With great performances and excellent writing, it’s a symbolic study that works.