Being brilliant and cultured is such a burden. Or, at least, that’s what Noah Baumbach would like everyone to believe.
In his 2005 breakthrough film, The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach digs back into his own upbringing to explore the inner workings of a fractured family. Jesse Eisenberg (who also received his break with this film) plays Walt, an intelligent but disconnected teenager caught in the middle of his parent’s messy separation (played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney). As well as bouncing between New York residences as part of the joint custody agreement, he also has to deal with a maladjusted younger brother, Frank (Owen Kline), and settle for a merely “cute” girlfriend.
What works so well about The Squid and the Whale is the humour that Baumbach mines from the bleakest of situations. At times, there’s a morbid hilarity in this cruelly dysfunctional family. Whether they’re attacking each other (Frank tells his mother she’s ugly) or the uncultured philistines that populate the world (basically, everyone outside of their immediate family), there’s a dark, biting wit to Baumbach’s squirmy screenplay.
It’s unusual for a film to present such relentlessly unpleasant characters. Walt is the closest thing the film has to a hero, but I hardly want to root for someone who takes his girlfriend for granted, tells his mother that she disgusts him, and fools everyone into thinking he wrote Pink Floyd’s “Hey You”.
Yet, after nearly an hour of gloomy confrontations, the film reaches a surprising emotional climax in a scene where Walt outlines a fond childhood memory. His simple description is surprisingly moving. I was amazed to find myself relating to such an insufferable character (what does that say about me?), and by the vivid feelings of childhood and nostalgia that the scene provoked in me.
Soon after, we also get to see Walt’s guarded facade crumble entirely for a brief moment, and Eisenberg plays the scene with a welcome understatement. While Linney relies on high drama and hysterics to do her best acting, Eisenberg injects heart into the most unexpected nooks of the film.
Daniels is also great as the father, Bernard, a smarmy, self-loving writer struggling to get another book published. Bernard is defeated, but so much so that he doesn’t relish tearing down others’ uncultured pursuits. The scenes that Daniels shares with Eisenberg are kinetic, even though it’s horrifying to see Bernard transferring his twisted worldview to an impressionable son.
The Squid and the Whale employs many techniques that are now associated with modern independent filmmaking. Comparisons to Wes Anderson’s quirky fare are obvious (especially since Anderson served as a producer here), and the downtrodden tone compliments Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze’s work nicely. But Baumbach offers a tense, raw alternative to Coppola’s dreamy love letters. At times employing a documentary-esque style, he keeps the visual flares to a minimum.
His editing is unobtrusively wonderful, too. At one point, a character reminds another of their distaste for Godard and his jump cuts. But sure enough, a mere couple of minutes later, Baumbach inserts his own jump cut with a knowing wink. He knows how to hit a nerve in the film’s darker moments as well, making the audience squirm with his frank camera work.
The film’s refusal to take itself seriously is a real asset. Some moments are uncomfortable to watch, yet somehow the film never becomes heavy-handed. I was totally sucked into this bizarre, off-putting world. Call it a “hipster” film if you wish, but to me, it’s just an example of great filmmaking.