The Squid and the Whale is a solid, competent, thoughtful, unspectacular movie from start to finish. It didn’t blow me away, it wouldn’t make my all-time top ten list, but it’s a winner.
Set in 1980s New York, and based on the real life childhood of director Noah Baumbach, it is the story of the break-up of a marriage, and how it affects the husband (Jeff Daniels), the wife (Laura Linney), and their 16 and 12 year old sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline).
Each of the four main characters is realistically complex and imperfect. At times they’re likable and doing what you hope they’d do, at times they’re screwing up but are clearly doing their best and you can still easily empathize, and at times they’re screwing up a little more and you can’t help but agree with the other characters who are annoyed by them or critical of them.
As far as whom to side with on the break-up, I found it slightly easier to sympathize with the husband, slightly easier to overlook or chuckle at his faults, slightly easier to imagine myself in his shoes, but it’s very close. Neither husband nor wife is a simplistic hero or villain. And if I had to guess, I would think if you polled viewers there’d be a few more siding with the wife instead.
Because the husband is the kind of egotist who will rub most people the wrong way. He’s an academic who cares what people think of him, and who wants to live in a world where people value the sorts of traits he has. He trumpets his knowledge of literary and esoteric matters in a know-it-all manner, he casually dismisses people who could not cut it in more of an academic or intellectual environment, he’s sensitive to the idea that others–including his wife–will only be able to judge his merits by indirect criteria they can recognize like salary and number of books published.
So people won’t think he’s purely cerebral, he makes plenty of offhand references to his successes with the ladies, though these tend to be either from the distant past or hypothetical (e.g., the many students who’ve come on to him whom he’s turned away).
He’s pretty full of himself in general.
The wife strikes me as someone who in moving out of her husband’s shadow, getting beyond being a wife and mother, and trying to establish more of a life as an individual, is maybe going a little too far in the other direction of being self-centered.
She’s focused on her newfound sexual freedom (which, truth be told, she started a little early, before the break-up) and getting her writing career off the ground. This is her “me time.”
In an interesting scene, the older of the boys comes to realize that maybe he’s been a little too quick to side with his father, when in fact it was his mother in the past that was there for him and that he really bonded with. But I think what you can also read into that is that his mother more recently, as a result of the increasingly tense and unsatisfying marriage, had not been as emotionally available, had not been as warm and connected with her kids, had gone into kind of a defensive shell that was about her, preceding this period of freedom that is also about her.
Yes, in the distant past she was there for the kids, more so than the father was. But not so much in the recent past or present.
Now she’s “getting on with her life” more than the husband is. He’s still focused on the marriage. He’s still taking little shots at her and laying blame, because it’s still very much on his mind. And even if he has to humble himself to do it, he’s still putting out feelers about getting back together.
She’s more cold about it, like it’s all been talked through ad nauseum, a decision was made, it’s over, and that’s that. In fact at one point she laughs in his face when he wants to reopen the discussion of resuming the marriage and making it work.
The kids go back and forth, sometimes choosing opposite parents, sometimes the same. They’re unhappy that they have so little say in how their lives are changing, even where they’re sleeping from night to night. (After the break-up, the husband and wife live a few miles from each other, with each getting the kids 50% of the nights.)
The kids are having some behavioral problems at school–nothing horrible–and the implication is that they’re from the stress of dealing with their parents splitting. But just like in real life, the causation is fuzzy. At that age kids would have issues regardless, so who’s to say how things would be different if their parents had remained together?
But clearly they’re confused and in pain about the domestic situation, and again it’s a credit to the movie’s realism that it suggests a connection with their other adolescent stumbles without insisting on a simplistic cause and effect.
The whole situation isn’t handled as amicably as it could be, and it isn’t handled as conflictually as it could be. It’s just flawed, hurting people trying to muddle through, alternately leaning on or lashing out at the others with whom they are emotionally connected and to whom they are vulnerable.
The movie provides no traditional ending, no real resolution to the situation. It’s just whatever events happen amongst these four people for a certain period of time. There’s no clear indication if things are going to get better or worse for them, though speculation is certainly in order, and I’d be curious what most viewers see in these characters’ future.
I will grade the film down on one point. It’s ludicrous that a high school student could play Hey You from Pink Floyd at an assembly and pass it off as his own original song, and not get caught in the first two seconds. This really stands out in a movie that otherwise is so painstakingly realistic. I don’t know if the filmmakers just really wanted that song for the soundtrack or what the deal was, but I guess they decided it was worth adding that implausible element to the story.
But overall, this is an impressively honest, effective study of the emotionally very important human issues surrounding the break-up of a marriage with children.