The Truth Hurts
by Michael Joshua Rowin

The Squid and the Whale
Dir. Noah Baumbach, U.S., Samuel Goldwyn

I pity filmmakers—and likewise novelists, songwriters, and painters—who directly channel their personal histories into art. First you have to delve into the swampy regions of the past and dredge up emotionally painful experiences. Then, once the project is at last complete, you must deliver it to audiences and film critics who will undoubtedly focus on the connections between your fiction and your reality rather than the thematic points you intended to make. Especially if the characters are thinly veiled representations of family members and loved ones. And especially if any of those people have spent considerable time in the public eye.

Fortunately, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale found the critical—if not box-office—attention it rightly deserved in 2005, even with its singular, upscale milieu and superficially juicy divorce details of the director’s well-known parents providing potential diversions. Squid’s more important qualities are rare these days—while the past year’s other best films were in large part ambitious political allegories (Caché, Land of Plenty, The World) or elliptical, oneiric challenges to conventional narrative cinema (Innocence, The Intruder, Café Lumiere), The Squid and the Whale stood out as one of the few successful character-driven dramas, in other words, one driven by actual, multidimensional characters. Avoiding the trap of using them as straw men or punching bags for harbored grievances, Baumbach clearly sketches the lines connecting members of his fictional Berkman family through their disorienting, universal feelings of need, respect, attention, envy, and love. That Baumbach does so without condescension or indulgence, and with a terrific sense of humor, is nearly revelatory.

Those revelations are embodied in perfectly captured moments of confusion and awkwardness. Dialogue is Baumbach’s forte, and there’s an economic and tonal quality to the language of fumbling interactions. The scenes that most spoke to me were the ones where paterfamilias Bernard, after breaking up with his now more successful writer wife, tries to vicariously experience the halcyon days of young bachelorhood he never had by insidiously advising son Walt to play the field, even though the teenager already has a lovely girlfriend and is just starting to experience the fragile process of cultivating a romantic relationship. This male bonding ritual—talking about women—is so sadly moving here because the ideal of a mature dialogue between father and son becomes dramatically offset by the unhealthy nature of their relationship, in which the latter, out of hero worship and devotion, naively imitates the former. “She’s not the type I go for,” Bernard authoritatively—and inappropriately—states. Bernard is trying to act hip (he’s had Walt staunchly on his side even before the divorce, but clearly needs an even stronger ally), but he only ends up warping Walt by passing on his own ineffectual masculine pride and further aggravating Walt’s need for peer and parental approval. That Bernard satisfies his midlife crisis and strikes back at philandering wife Joanne by sleeping with Lili, the provocative college student who stays at his house and who also has a crush on Walt, doesn’t exactly simplify matters. A film like The Squid and the Whale lives and dies with its actors—the entire Beckman clan is played perfectly by its cast, but none more so than Jeff Daniels, who’s been rightly hailed for his interpretation of Bernard, all slouched resignation and passive-aggressive intellectualism, an emotional cripple hiding behind literary references and pompous judgments. He remarkably shapes Baumbach’s scenarios by displaying a lifetime of delusions and defenses in a single hurt look. While Daniels’ performance and Bernard’s central role in the film push Laura Linney’s Joan to the sidelines (one of the film’s few flaws), Baumbach has done something special by tackling the restrictive codes of father-son alliances.

Then there’s Walt—the other half of the above-mentioned equation—and his solo acoustic performance of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You.” Not since Rebekah del Rio’s Spanish a cappella rendering of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Mulholland Drive have I been so struck by a musical performance and its thematic resonances within a film. The song is Walt’s plea for connection, of course, but it also builds on his penchant for mimicry—perhaps better written in this context as “mimic-cry.” Films like The Squid and the Whale can be judged in part by how scenes of adolescence’s plaintive embarrassments (not out-and-out humiliations, which many such dramas primarily traffic in) and concealed crimes are brought to life and holistically enacted. Baumbach’s film plays out as a series of private trials made disarmingly public, and “Hey You” is the freeze-frame moment of youthful yearning and boneheaded decision, of inarticulate frustrations finding release in fits of emotional nakedness and cultural appropriation. While Walt finds a slightly better outlet than his brother Frank—who at 12 is already drinking, cursing, and masturbating with id-like abandon—his rough maturation is as difficult to watch as your own memories of being Walt’s age, when only a nascent understanding of oneself is attainable.

In The Squid and the Whale that difficulty stems from a sense of actually accompanying these people as they live life without the safety net of tidy resolution or redemptive edification. Walt’s confused reaction to his parents’ divorce is only a personal manifestation of the missing common ground that remains buried under the Beckman clan’s complexes—they struggle against their own instincts and needs and, as in reality (but so rarely at the movies), they more often lose than win. It’s nice to see Walt gain insight at the end of the film as he begins to awaken from his Bernard-induced stupor, but there’s clearly still work to be done. The film’s blatant title metaphor (the squid and whale diorama at the Museum of Natural History always haunted me as a kid as well—maybe Baumbach tapped into something there, too) makes this plain—there’s no real victor between these aquatic enemies, no winner or loser in the Beckman divorce, no winners or losers in life. There’s just the scarring battle, and as small and seemingly insulated as that battle is in Baumbach’s film—and as small and seemingly insulated as it might have seemed in a year of bold cinematic statements—it really means the world.