Squid and the Whale, The (2005)

Shot in intimate 16mm, this is one of Baumbach’s finest and tightest dramedies, about a family of four trying to navigate an inconvenient but necessary divorce, backed by all-round excellent performances by the main cast.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,260

Dir. Noah Baumbach
2005 | USA | Comedy/Drama | 81 mins | 1.85:1 | English
NC16 (passed clean) for strong sexual content, graphic dialogue and language

Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin
Plot: Two young brothers growing up in 1980s Park Slope, Brooklyn, navigate the jagged contours of the divorce of their parents, both writers. 
Awards: Won Directing Award, Screenwriting Award & Nom. for Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic (Sundance); Nom. for Best Original Screenplay (Oscars)
Distributor: Sony

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Family, Divorce
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Tight
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Spoilers: No

I’ve seen a fair bit of Noah Baumbach’s works and so far I found The Squid and the Whale to be one of his very best.  At only around 80 minutes in length, it sure is a very tight film, not just in terms of pacing but also storytelling. 

As economically set up an opening scene as any in cinema, via a casual game of tennis, Baumbach gets us immediately acquainted with the characters that would make up the disintegrating family of four—Bernard (Jeff Daniels), Joan (Laura Linney), Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). 

Perhaps ‘disintegrating’ is too strong a word to describe the inconvenient but necessary divorce between Bernard and Joan, who decide to have joint custody of Walt and his younger brother.  From this early setup, we already have a whiff of their personalities, and literally whose ‘sides’ Walt and Frank are on. 

While the title refers to a story that one of the characters will later tell in the movie, the squid and the whale here very much represent opposing sides and the tension of fight or flight. 

“The whole thing’s very complicated.”

Shot in intimate 16mm, Baumbach’s film is blessed by outstanding all-round performances by the cast—I’m particularly impressed with Laura Linney and Owen Kline who both exude much of the film’s emotional core. 

As far as American independent filmmaking is concerned, The Squid and the Whale is one of the finest dramedies of the 2000s; although it is frank in its depiction and discussion of sexual discovery/promiscuity as well as coarse language uttered by minors, Baumbach manages to set the tone right. 

The humour is a tad dark, the scenarios are a tad bleak, but as we see the family separate, we also find warmth in each character’s desire for acceptance from one another as they try to reshape existing unamendable relationships in new, tolerable ways.

Grade: A-



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