Squid and the Whale

Writer-director Noah Baumbach well deservedly won the 2005 Best Directing and Writing Award at this year's Sundance Festival for “The Squid and the Whale,” his heartfelt film about a family splintered by divorce, anchored by an uncompromising, Oscar-caliber performance from Jeff Daniels in his best role to date, as the family patriarch.

As far as divorce films go, “The Squid and the Whale” is a much better picture than Robert Benton's 1979 Oscar-winning melodrama,” Kramer Vs. Kramer,” and in emotional impact and honesty it may be on par with Alan Parker' “Shoot the Moon” (1982), with Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, and Roger Donaldson “Smash Palace” (1981), to mention two of the genre's best.

The film captures with extraordinary immediacy the inner workings of the Beckman family in Park Slope, Brooklyn, circa 1986. Bernard (Daniels), an established academic and author, is married to Joan, (Laura Linnet), an ambitious, restless, up-and-coming writer. When their marriage goes on the rocks, their two sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), 16, and Frank (Owen Kline), 12, are left to grapple with confusing feelings.

The experience proves to be tender, funny and ultimately moving coming-of-age for Walt, but a tortuously premature one for Frank. The emotional strains that emerge during this difficult transitional period for the Berkmans are given a remarkably subtle and nuanced portrayal as the modern family learns to redefine itself.

When Walt passes off the Pink Floyd song “Hey You” as his original work and performs it at a high school talent show, he's perfectly content with his rationale. “I felt I could have written it, so the fact that it was already written was kind of a technicality.” At the same time, his brother Frank drinks beer and wonders openly about his mother's sex life.

Both are reacting to the fall-out from the bomb dropped on their comfortable family life when their parents, Bernard, a once-promising author and now middle-aged academic, and Joan, a burgeoning writer with a book deal, announce they are splitting up.

The familiar, steady foundation is utterly shaken. Walt and Frank are relegated to alternating weekends and a jumbled calendar of Mom or Dad nights. The kids are forced to deal with the conflicted emotions that arise from the sudden collapse of their parents' marriage.

Anna Paquin is cast as a young college student who moves into Bernard's crumbling Brooklyn and creates sexual tension and reift between father and son. William Baldwin plays a tennis pro who coaches the Berkman kids, while dating their newly-separated mother.

From the opening scene, a tennis match that pits father and son and mother and son, it's clear there's trouble in the Berkman family. Love, anger and divided loyalties are on display. In the months that follow, the kids bounce back and forth between homes, like the ping pong game that is the only form of recreation at their father's rundown house.

While Walt idolizes his opinionated father and young Frank favors his overly candid mother, it's a long-forgotten image of the Squid and the Whale diorama at New York's Natural History Museum that brings a struggling adolescent back to a reassuring, if temporary, concept of home.

An exquisitely layered look at divorce and the resiliency of youth, “The Squid and the Whale” deftly navigates, with emotional tension and inescapable humor the realities of a family in turmoil and transition. Baumbach, who previously wrote and directed “Kicking and Screaming” and “Mr. Jealousy,” makes quantum leap forward as writer and director—”The Squid and the Whale” is is best, most accomplished film to date.

Formerly, Baumbach co-wrote Wes Anderson's “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” a vastly disappointing film, and he's also co-writer of the upcoming “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” with writer-director Anderson, who now serves as producer on Baumbach's picture.

For his third solo effort, Baumbach turned his attentions to a story inspired and influenced by his Brooklyn childhood. Baumbach initially toyed with writing about two brothers in their 30s, dealing retroactively with their parents divorce, but the script took a different direction when he began thinking about the story from the younger kid's perspective. Later, he reworked the narrative and wrote from the parents' POV. The end result is a detailed and touching portrait of a four-member family.

His superb cast, led by Daniels and Laura Linney, explores a memorable time in the 1980s, when marriages were compromised and changing by new political values, personal desires and professional expectations, particularly for women.

For this shoot, Baumbach returned to familiar ground, filming among the turn-of-the-century brownstones in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, where he grew up in the 1980s. Several scenes were filmed at Midwood High School, his alma mater. Some of the Brooklyn locations were provided by Baumbach's friends, including the Berkman residence where much of the action takes place. Shooting in places that had real meaning to him helped Baumbach connect with the material on a visceral and creative level.

While inspired by the real-life experience of his parents' divorce, Baumbach has fictionalized some characters and reinvented some events. Among the film's many strengths are the sympathetic portrait of the father and the intimacy of the story, which is told through the eyes of kids without demeaning them.

Baumbach worked with production designer Anne Ross to distinguish the two houses. In the Park Slope brownstone, where the family initially lives together, they used browns and blues, old rugs, a corduroy couch. The original detail, the wood, and the moldings give the film a warm and accurate feel. In contrast, the house Bernard moves into after the split was influenced by some of Lucian Freud's paintings, using faded greens and yellows, the colors of old, dying plants. For authenticity, Baumach asked Daniels to wear his father's clothes.

Shooting in Super 16 rather than digital video, Baumbach gives the film an authentic 1980s feel. Songs from both the kids' and parents' generation contribute to the film's ambiance. Pink Floyd's “Hey You” particularly plays a major role, as a song that triggers a lot of specific memories for certain people.

Daniels, who has portrayed both offbeat and traditional characters, gives a stunning, Oscar-caliber performance as the loser-father, walking a fine line between being sympathetic and unsympathetic. He conveys marvelously Bernard's blind spot, when it comes to how others perceived him. In the wake of a continuing stream of self-absorbed behavior, he's unapologetic and unaware of his wearing effect on those around him, basking in his brilliance as long as there is an audience, even if it consists of one person, his son.

Daniels' Bernard is a man who had spent too much of his life inside his own head, when it came to relating to anyone. Now in decline, he's a train wreck. Still, somewhere inside his self-absorption, there's a man who probably knows the truth about himsel but refuses to acknowledge it and bear the consequences.

The casting coup was to find kids who felt fresh and authentic, and Baumbach's decision not to use identifiable or famous child actors pays off. Kline's character goes through very difficult times and acts out in extreme ways throughout the film. The character of Walt, Frank's older brother, is equally complex due to its many shades.

Jesse Eisenberg, who had appeared in “Roger Dodger,” fits well into the role of a teenager who speaks with confidence, intelligence and wit, but who doesn't know what he's really saying; the insecurity that exists in Walt can't be indicated.

Finding the perfect actress to play Joan Berkman may have been the easiest part of the casting process. Laura Linney was reportedly the first person cast, and she remained with the project through a lengthy pre-production period. Endlessly versatile, Linney manages to remain sympathetic despite many negative aspects of her character.

Multi-layered, “The Squid and the Whale” is intensely moving and extremely funny at the same time. It's an unflinching but affectionate portrait of a family in which all the characters are flawed. And the film's emotional directness is most impressive: From the very first scene, the movie grabs you and doesn't let up to the end.

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