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The Squid and the Whale

Noah Baumbach serves an ace with his semi-biographical account of his adolescent years and his parent’s divorce.

The film opens with the Berkman family playing tennis, an act that is either a thinly veiled metaphor about the family’s ability to make going back and forth an aggressive competition, or an example of Baumbach’s actual Sundays with his family.  Either way, the scene introduces the Berkman family perfectly.

At the head of the family is Bernard (Jeff Daniels), a once great writer, who now resorts to tearing down others’ work and ensuring that his opinions will be carried on long after he is gone by the English majors he now teaches, and his impressionable son.

Unfortunately, while the English majors are willing to put in the effort to read the minor and major works of Dickens and form their own opinions about life and literature, Bernard’s son Walt, is not.

For Walt, his father’s word is beyond contest.  So when Bernard throws out terms like Kafkaesque around the dinner table, Walt skips reading Metamorphosis, describes the book as Kafkaesque, and is subsequently embarrassed by his lack of knowledge.

This minor indiscretion is fine though.  The cute, intellectually superior, girl finds Walt’s flub endearing and invites him to dinner with her completely functional family.  Sadly, this is the last time that Bernard’s influence on Walt is anything less than hazardous.

As the Berkman family starts to deteriorate, and the children are forced to choose sides, the whispers of Bernard in Walt’s ears start to have a greater impact.

It is hard to figure out if this film is a love letter, or requiem, for Baumbach’s formidable teenage years.  On one hand Noah’s alter-ego Walt Berkman (played superbly by the under appreciated Jesse Eisenberg) finds love, discovers who he is, and pulls himself from under, what must be, the heavy shadow of his father.  On the other hand, both Walt and his younger brother Frank are forced to witness the degeneration of their family, while confronting the harsh realities of the very human flaws that exist in all of us.  Either way, it was beautiful.

Baumbach’s un-romantic view of this period in his life allows him to recreate the mid 80s in a way that is so raw and real that it makes you genuinely question when the film was shot.  The sky wasn’t filled with rainbows because it represented his child hood, and it wasn’t overcast because it depicted his parents’ divorce, the sky was just blue.

This film’s strength is how firmly it is rooted in reality.  It doesn’t cheat on the dialogue or the visuals.  It would have been easy to overshoot the film or have the characters use overly elaborate dialogue to create an illusion of story to cover up a fairly uneventful plot, but Baumbach didn’t take this bait.

Instead of worrying that a lack of events would create a lack of interest, Baumbach leaned heavily on his actors’ performances.  And what performances they gave.

Jeff Daniels, whose career as a dramatic actor may be forever in jeopardy due to his Dumb and Dumber roots, gives a performance that should have earned him at least some sort of Oscar recognition.  His misanthropic demeanor and pretentious diction stir up just the right amount of hateful feelings to get you to care about what happens to him, without pinning all your hopes and dreams on his happiness.

Laura Linney, whose role is slightly diminished, holds down the sympathetic parent role as much as she is allowed to.  Her screen time, and role in the film in general, is perhaps less than an actress of her caliber is entitled to, but it is also understated in a way that serves to lift the rest of the cast around her up.

The real star of this film though is Jesse Eisenberg.  Delivering lines in a way that few other actors, his age or not, could do, Eisenberg effortlessly embraces the character of Walt in a way that is nothing short of masterful.

This film should be watched by anyone that claims to love film, but it should not be watched lightly or without your full attention.  The level of emotional intimacy that this film creates demands full attention, and the pay-off makes it worth your while.