The Squid and the Whale begins with a family tennis match. Father and older son play on one team, mother and younger son on the other. The children are simply trying to enjoy themselves, but between the parents exists a tense competition, their litany of matrimonial problems shimmering underneath the surface. Both parents coach their kids to exploit the weaknesses of the other, drawing battle lines for an upcoming conflict that could explode into existence at any minute. Like all wars, the innocent victims will be the biggest losers.
It comes as no surprise that writer/director Noah Baumbach experienced the devastating dissolution of his own parent’s marriage. Throughout the film, he skillfully hits all the right notes of a messy divorce, especially those where the parents use their children against each other in the same way two warring nations would drop atomic weapons on each other’s cities.
Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg) represents Baumbach at 17, growing up in Brooklyn in 1986. His divorcing parents are writers whose literary success only serves to provide more competition. He takes the side of his father Bernard (Jeff Daniels), a bombastic intellectual who takes palatable joy in his belief that anyone who doesn’t read dozens of classic novels or see obscure French films is a total idiot. Bernard pressures his sons so much that Walt sputters out detailed literary critiques of books that he couldn’t possibly enjoy or fully understand. When Walt wins the school talent show for song writing, he neglects to mention that Pink Floyd recorded the song first.
Younger son Frank (Owen Kline) sides with his mother Joan (Laura Linney). Frank craftily takes revenge on his father by declaring his intent to become a tennis pro, much like the one Joan is dating. Nothing seems more horrifying to Bernard than a son who foregoes Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka for tennis, except maybe one that prefers the bold promiscuity of his mother to the emotional vacancy of his father.
When the parents split, Bernard moves across town, and angrily insists that the boys refer to his house as “their” house. Walt and Frank are both stumbling into sexuality, but both parents are too busy with their own new lovers to pay much notice, being more interested in which child supports whom. Notice how Bernard deftly cultivates resentment in his son by casually mentioning that Joan had an affair, or how Joan can only mumble weak excuses in response.
Baumbach recognizes how divorce can negatively affect the relationships of their children. Bernard tells Walt that he made a mistake in sticking with one woman, causing Walt to promptly terminate his own relationship with a sweet girl who treats him nicely. Even worse, Frank begins experimenting with sexuality in a way that might be unprintable in a major newspaper, except to say that expulsion from school wouldn’t be unwarranted. Neither parent means to harm their children, but their selfishness ensures that they do, and badly.
If this sounds like a depressing film, it is, but not in the way one would expect. It is often very funny, savagely satirizing the vacant superiority of many uber-intellectuals, as well as the naïve conception that you can split a family to anyone’s satisfaction. But after the credits roll, we’re left with a lingering despair at the hopelessness of the situation, but can take solace in the knowledge that the boys will grow up, their parents will settle down, and life will move on.
4.5 out of 5