The discomfort you feel while watching writer/director Noah Baumbach’s 2005 semi-autobiographical film The Squid and the Whale is very much real. On my second viewing, couch squirming seemed rehearsed to specific scenes (more on that later), almost instinctive to the point that I had to get up a few times and compose myself.
In the decade since making the film, Baumbach probably takes these comments as compliments, not just for his work but for everyone else’ work as well. The acting had to be as sharp as the writing and directing otherwise the story would have fallen apart, especially since everyone in the family is not completely likable.
I can’t imagine the dysfunctional Berkman family being acted by anyone other than Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as the writer parents (Bernard and Joan, respectively), Jesse Eisenberg as the oldest son Walt, or Owen Kline as the youngest son Frank. When their parents decide to separate and despite declaring joint custody, Walt and Frank take sides: dad with the former and mom with the latter.
This family rift intensifies as life goes on. Now living separately, Bernard invites Lili (Anna Paquin), one of his college students, to stay with him. Not having lived then or there, I can only assume this housing arrangement was not inappropriate in 1980s Brooklyn. From the start, Bernard and Lili both appear to have mutual crushes, which is made all the more awkward when Walt spends more time with dad and develops a crush on Lili too despite his already having a girlfriend named Sophie (Halley Feiffer).
One recurring theme is the idea of a broken family, and how everyone in said broken family defines themselves within that societal label. Dad directs Frank to refer to their old home as mom’s home. Mom hides her books so that dad doesn’t take them on his way out. Walt pleads with Frank to not mention the divorce to anyone at school. Young Frank starts drinking and masturbating in public spaces (I’m still not sold on this last part, although I have to believe it happened in real life since Baumbach included it). While these scenes may appear bland at first, they actually feature much nuance and help drive the story forward.
Since the film is told mainly through the kids’ perspective, we get many more scenes with them growing up. Here comes the awkwardness: Walt’s regurgitating his dad’s thoughts on Kafka while trying impress Sophie despite not really knowing what he’s talking about, Walt’s passive-aggressive complimenting of Sophie after their first kiss, Frank’s walking in on mom’s night alone with his tennis instructor Ivan (William Baldwin), Bernard and Walt’s candid talks about sex.
Though as the film progresses, its humor becomes more apparent as the awkwardness fades due to our better understanding of and personal relating with these characters (and I’m not just talking about masturbation discovery). Once there, you’ll remember how much your adolescence was both awkward and funny, and you realize, like Walt eventually does, that you are your own person (not just the child of your parents) and you can decide whether to be the squid or the whale. (Big shout out to the American Museum of Natural History.)
Cinematographer Robert Yeoman and director Noah Baumbach supervised a new restored 4k digital transfer of the original Super 16mm film. The video quality is excellent and displays the muted 80s-esque colors very well. The Blu-ray version also includes a 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that is similarly crisp, ensuring the audience can even hear songs that are being played in the film background like Bryan Adams’ “Run to You” during Walt and Sophie’s first kiss scene.
There are several lite supplements on this new set, which mostly feature individual retrospective interviews with Baumbach, Daniels, Linney, Eisenberg, and Kline as they discuss making the film, why they were so drawn to the script, and the impact the film had on their personal and professional lives. Daniels individually credits the film with bringing him back into the limelight as a critically-appreciated actor between the film’s release over ten years ago and today.
Other supplements include:
- Ten-minute conversation between Baumbach and composers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips about their inspirations for the film’s score and the featured classic rock songs. There’s an interesting tidbit about the last-minute use of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as Walt’s performance song during his high school’s talent show.
- Ten-minute behind-the-scenes 2005 documentary with on-set footage and cast interviews. A few great scenes highlight Baumbach’s direction of some actors, which is always a treat to see that part of the process. Baumbach himself describes his direction as only half of it; the other half is the actors have to understand their characters and interpret Baumbach’s direction themselves.
- A few minutes of audition footage that mainly features Eisenberg in five different scenes with Kline and Feiffer. The footage is as rough as you would expect from scenes that were shot with a handheld personal camcorder over ten years ago; the audio is barely audible.
- A few original theatrical trailers (not remastered).
The booklet includes an essay by critic Kent Jones and an interview of Baumbach by novelist Jonathan Lethem for the fall 2005 issue of BOMB magazine. Jones’ essay is a very worthwhile read that helps frame The Squid and the Whale within New York City both as a film setting and its own unique cityscape. Lethem’s interview with Baumbach is similarly a worthwhile read. Baumbach goes into much more detail about the autobiographical nature of the story; though true be told, he doesn’t really know much of it was true anymore.
NOTE: Article previously published on Blogcritics.