Release: 5th December 2016
With excruciating honesty, The Squid and the Whale chronicles the experiences of two young brothers growing up in 1980s Park Slope, Brooklyn, as they navigate the jagged contours of the divorce of their parents, both writers.
When one thinks of Jeff Daniel generating mirth, it is usually as loveable oath Harry Dunne in Farrelly Brothers comedy Dumb & Dumber (the abysmal sequel not withstanding). But the fact remains, Daniels may never have been more achingly brilliant as he is in Noah Baumbach’s breakthrough picture, The Squid and the Whale. A perfect storm of arrogant twerp and desperate loser, Daniel’s portrayal of Bernard Berkman is one for the ages. But even better is that Daniels is not alone in what he creates within Baumbach’s film; everyone is bringing their A-game.
Voted by the American Film Institute as film of the year 2006, there is good reason The Squid and the Whale has kept a special place in the hearts of film buffs worldwide; it is a little slice of genius. There is a frigid sense of intellectualism which binds and directs the Berkman family in their ugly divide. From Bernard pigeonholing opponents as “difficult” and Joan waxing lyrical to her children about lovers of times past at any given occasion, the Berkman family do anything they can to avoid pain and honesty. Some of us may never have endured the earth shattering experience of a parental split, but we all sense the difficulty of hiding emotions. Baumbach takes us through this entire journey with utter honesty and a seemingly supernatural sense of correctness. What makes The Squid and the Whale more potent is Baumbach’s note perfect interpretation of this experience through the already ugly process of adolescence – finding one’s self.
There are no flashy set pieces, or grandiose monologues, but Baumbach elicits a vortex of emotional highs and lows that keep your attention well into the final credits. Nothing is wasted on screen, and if The Squid and the Whale doesn’t have you aching with awkwardness or agape with familiarity, it will often have you doubled over in laughter. The Squid and the Whale is a wry little beast. Granted, its central themes are a little on the nose, and the metaphysical title is all too clear – but when was veiled wit ever so necessary for kudos? The fact remains that unlike his central protagonist Bernard, Baumbach sees beauty in accessibility.
A quartet of strong central performances make the struggles of the Berkman family feel all the more frustrating and tragic, with a wonderfully understated aside from William “Hey, Brother” Baldwin. The only week(ish) link is an innocuous cameo from Anna Paquin, who supposedly represents a budding fancy for Bernard, but often amounts to a walking coma.
The Squid and the Whale brings with it a little lassitude, but it also brings a weighty gust of fresh air. It treads a comfortable line between cinéma vérité and trendy Independent filmmaking, often flitting between the two and creating a wonderful mix. Baumbach originally asked fellow hipster Wes Anderson to direct this, but Anderson rightly encouraged his friend to take the reigns himself. It was solid advice, and the end result is an embarrassment of riches.
Film Grade: A
An archive Making Of paints a nice picture of the film’s creation, while a series of brand new Interviews give lovely insight into the process the actors went through, and provides a nice retrospective.
Special Features Grade: B+
Put simply, The Squid and the Whale is the filet of Noah Baumbach’s career.