I always viewed life as material for a movie.
—Noah Baumbach, New York Times (9 October 2005)
Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is mad. He’s mad at his mother, Joan (Laura Linney), his dad Bernard (Jeff Daniels), and at his 12-year-old brother Frank (Owen Kline). This much is clear in the first moments of The Squid and the Whale, when the foursome assemble for a tennis match, and Walt follows his dad’s advice to “hit it at your mother’s backhand: it’s pretty weak.”
Walt’s face betrays his sense of victory, and though Joan reminds him not to “gloat,” he can’t really help himself. He’s got a dark and superior sense of himself, gleaned from his father and honed in disdain of his mother. He has reason to be bitter, as his parents have been arguing for what seems forever, at least as they stake their grounds now that they are headed to divorce. Walt’s mad at the divorce too, feeling guilty and resentful, as well as angsty and twingey because of his 16-year-old hormones. Walt, in a word, is facing his own adulthood and not liking it one bit.
As Noah Baumbach’s reportedly autobiographical film tracks Walt’s slow evolution during the months surrounding the divorce (in 1986 Park Slope, Brooklyn), it keeps something of a distance, wry and observant. This makes the tale less pungent but also less comic than Holden Caulfield’s version of a similar adolescent meltdown. Walt is a self-serious sort, a gift from Bernard, whose ego knows no bounds. A once famous novelist, Bernard is now a frustrated creative writing professor who sucks up his female students’ crushes like air. He carries around Saul Bellow’s The Victim, in case you miss how he’s feeling, and takes out his umbrage on Joan, who can’t help but notice.
Still, they perform their marriage for a few more weeks, attending to the boys rather than each other. Walt channels his unspoken understanding in his own self-destructive effort to win dad’s approval, or maybe mom’s. Preparing to enter his school’s talent contest, he claims that Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” is his composition, singing it in plaintive, folky guitar mode for his parents. Bernard accepts the lie because he can’t imagine it, and assesses the song using terms he means as praise: “Very dense,” he declares, brow furrowed, “very interesting.” Joan advises Walt to “practice” so he’ll be ready for the competition, and father and son seem almost to dismiss her concern with one wave of a gesture, their bodies and attitudes in sync against her.
When Joan and Bernard inevitably separate, he takes up residence across the park, in what he calls “the filet of the neighborhood,” leaving the family house and the cat in Joan’s care. They arrange a scheme so the boys move between apartments on alternate nights, as if this will ease the transition. Frank is so undone by their bickering that he’s soon discovered by school library staff masturbating onto books in the stacks, books being the sign of love and value in his own family (indicated most acutely when Joan hides her books away in Frank’s bedroom so that Bernard can’t steal them away).
Walt sees, as he puts it, that “dad isn’t as successful as he used to be,” but like his father, blames Joan: “Why are you screwing it up?” he asks when she tries to explain the split. She tries to soothe him and maybe provide context (“Don’t most of you friends have divorced parents?”), but Walt won’t have it. He listens instead to his father, seeking his measure of events and faults.
So, for instance, Walt absorbs Bernard’s evaluation of the galumphy hunk of the local tennis pro, Ivan (Billy Baldwin), whose generosity appeals to Frank and Joan both. Bernard holds forth for the boys (“Ivan’s a bit of a philistine, isn’t he?”), performing a passive aggression that Walt mimics later. When Frank says he hates dad’s place and wants to go home, Walt judges him instantly and harshly: “Don’t be a chick.”
Though it’s clear where Walt gets such ideas, it’s painful to watch him implement them. Struck by the beauty of a classmate, Sophie (Halley Feiffer), Walt tests his own sorts of appeals, declaring The Metamorphosis “Kafka-esque” in an effort to impress her. She’s forgiving, and seems inclined to like him, even when, as she says, he puts his “whole tongue” down her throat during a tentative first kiss. “Do it in little licks,” she suggests, trying to help. Embarrassed and afraid, Walt’s inner Bernard kicks in: “You shouldn’t have so many freckles on your face.” Sophie pales, but also seems to know herself—and apparently, boys her age—well enough that she’s not about to be devastated by such a feeble brand of offensiveness.
Less self-secure is Bernard’s student Lili (Anna Paquin). Though she knows how to work her wily magic (and here Paquin recalls her role in 25th Hour), Lili, a “chick” in Walt’s sense of the word, manipulates her options, flirting with Bernard and Walt after she moves into a spare room at Bernard’s. While this situation is too movie-regular to generate much sympathy for anyone involved, it also breaks open to suggest the separate desolations afflicting all three.
At times, Baumbach’s film slips into self-appreciating shorthand, as when the camera notes the movie poster in Walt’s bedroom, for The Mother and the Whore, or he runs off to find the diorama of eternal, gargantuan struggle in the Museum of Natural History that grants The Squid and the Whale its unsubtle title. But such clunks make their own sort of sense in a film dug so delicately into the psyche of a kid in what may end up being eternal turmoil. Walt read his world as he’s been instructed, as a reflection of himself.