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The Squid and the Whale

USA 2005
Directed by
Noah Baumbach
88 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bruce Paterson
4 stars

The Squid And The Whale

Synopsis: Children attempt to overcome the sins of the parents in this powerful ‘comedy’ about a dysfunctional family.

The Squid and The Whale is extraordinary. Perhaps not extraordinary in the usual sense bandied around film reviews. But definitely far beyond the ordinary in its ability to recreate an intimate, powerful, often darkly comic story.

Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is the poisonous patriarch of a Brooklyn family, once a critically successful novelist but now reduced to teaching. His wife, Joan (Laura Linney), discovers a literary talent of her own, fueling Bernard’s jealousies and the crumbling of the marriage. The two teenage sons are left to suffer and mimic their dysfunctional parents, suffering joint custody, until glimpsing light at the end of the tunnel.

The story is apparently inspired by the director’s own childhood experiences in Brooklyn in the mid 1980s. And this is the '80s captured as many will remember it – the bad hair, the clothes depicted in the grainy colours of our fading memories. More importantly, it relives a post-'70s period in which many baby boomers were lost in introspection and selfishness, and their children were left to drift. The performances precisely and unmercilessly capture the nuances of the characters. The father hides his insecurity under manipulative snobbishness, guiding his children down the path of his own immaturity. The mother explores her own talents and sexuality, sometimes to the exclusion of maternal responsibility. The children, at times blind devotees of their favourite parent, slowly overcome these destructive influences to begin establishing their own identity and purpose.

Noel Baumbach has a collaborative relationship with writer/director Wes Anderson, previously writing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2005). The beat of Squid’s dialogue shares that film’s flavour. It also has some similar elements to Wes’s tremendously exaggerated The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) as if Squid were its real-life cousin.

Squid is definitely a grimmer take on families going wrong. Still, audiences will laugh as well as wince as the inner life of a failing family is painfully, memorably exposed.




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