The Vermont Cynic

Squid Plus Whale


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In the unfortunate era of 50 percent divorce rates and the subsequent decline of the nuclear family, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale surely resonates for the youth of “Generation Y.” Director Noah Baumbach, (writing partner to Wes Anderson) presents us with his autobiographical story set in Brooklyn in the early 1980s during his parents’ separation.

The viewer is first introduced to this quirky, litterateur family on the tennis court. This is clearly a conscious choice on Baumbach’s part as the politics of this family foursome becomes clear under the neon lights in the guise of friendly competition. The tennis court setting also gives us an insight into the fact that it is set some time during the kitschy 1980s by the tall tube socks, awkwardly shaped wooden rackets and ratty t-shirts the characters wear.

The tensions between the mother, Joan Berkman (played by Laura Linney) and the father, Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) are acute and make for an awkward viewing pleasure. Bernard’s background as a published novelist heavily influences his character through the literary allusions that saturates his speech. His wife Joan however, is about to publish her first novel, simultaneous to the separation. This chronological overlap hints at the jealousy and tension between the husband, “has-been” writer, and the wife, an up-and-coming success.

The two children in this divided unit, Walt and Frank, help carry the universal family themes that make this movie so accessible. Problems with homework, talent shows and girl troubles are all ensconced in the hilarity of a language both awkward and cold that is typical Baumbach.

The film carries us across the choppy waters caused by the initial changes of the separation: think alternating days with each parent, sharing the family animal, getting left at one house or the other by miscommunication, and the inevitable psychological effects on the children. What makes this film shine is the pure candor in which these characters hurt each other and themselves. They are all so lost in the troubles of their lives, the changes of adolescence and middle age, that they create heroes for themselves to work toward and impress who all later become the anti-heroes. This is where the brilliance of the story comes in: the perfect human is a fantasy, we are all flawed says Baumbach, too afraid to see the horrors of ourselves and of our heroes…too afraid to see the squid and the whale.

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Squid Plus Whale