It’s 1986 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the Berkmans are getting a divorce. Bernard (Jeff Daniels), the dad, is an author and professor of literature who knows his best books are probably behind him, while mom Joan (Laura Linney) is just beginning to embark upon a promising writing career of her own. Their sons, 16 year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12 year-old Frank (Owen Kline), are caught in the middle, as are all children in such situations, and are forced to deal with different living arrangements and their parents’ new romantic interests. “The Squid and the Whale” is the story of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s own experience dealing with his parents’ split, and the authenticity of the conversations and the attention to detail demonstrate this quite impressively.
Walt, upon whom most of the attention focuses, idolizes his father to the point of aping his opinions of literature without actually reading the books in question and passing off Pink Floyd lyrics as his own. Frank, on the other hand, seems more inclined to cut his mother some slack, though he handles the pressures of the split in a somewhat less savory manner. Both Eisenberg and Kline are quite believable as two kids just trying to cope with the changes in their family and themselves.
The separation starts out amicable enough (or as amicable as such things ever are). Bernard – who personifies “passive aggression” – moves into a new house across the park, while Joan rearranges the furniture, and both settle on a schedule for keeping the kids (and the cat). Complications arise, of course, as Joan begins seeing Frank’s tennis teacher (a droll William Baldwin) and one of Bernard’s students (Anna Paquin) moves into his house. Walt’s having girl problems of his own, and Frank has decided he likes masturbating a bit too much.
Baumbach crams an impressive amount of characterization and humor into 82 minutes. Eisenberg’s Walt evolves the most, going from willing apologist for and defender of his father to reluctantly maturing young man, one who gradually comes to realize his father may not be the expert on women he claims. Walt becomes cognizant of his father’s flaws and open to the reality of his parents’ situation and that both of them were at fault. An inspired performance by Jeff Daniels and the now predictable excellence of Linney propel the film. Both effortlessly capture the frustration and sorrow resulting from the dissolution of their marriage, as well as the difficulties inherent in trying to raise kids through a divorce.
“The Squid and the Whale,” above all, is about family and the ways in which our respective families shape our lives. Baumbach has crafted an emotionally genuine little film that uses one brief period from his own childhood to show this. And while he’s based the movie on events in his life from 1986, few references to the era are evident (aside from the makes of certain automobiles, vintage Nikes, and the presumption that the Knicks are actually a competitive team) this is a story that could’ve taken place any time since the onset of no-fault divorce.