THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (12/16/2005)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 92% Certified Fresh
PLOT: Two young brothers deal with the divorce of their parents in 1986 Brooklyn, specifically the Park Slope neighborhood.
I started writing this as a “conventional” review, and I found myself unable to make it more than a simple summary of the plot. I have rarely seen a movie that has left me more inarticulate than this one. I CAN tell you the movie works, and works extremely well, but I am unable to explain exactly WHY.
It’s a simple story of a husband and wife going through divorce, deciding on joint custody of their two sons, and the complications that ensue. The husband, Bernard, is a literature professor and a published novelist, but who hasn’t had anything published for some time. The wife, Joan, is in the final stages of getting her own first novel published. This fact may or may not be one of the causes of the divorce, but Bernard is pretty sure it is. Their sons, Walt (high school senior) and Frank (maybe 12 years old), deal with this news in a predictable manner: initial numb acceptance, then some acting out a little later.
Bernard, whose well-educated narcissism is impossible to miss, almost cheerfully informs the sons that he and Joan will share joint custody evenly during the week. One of the sons asks, “How can you share us evenly?”
“I’ll have you every other Thursday,” Bernard explains helpfully. This answers the question without making anything better.
ANYWAY. The movie goes on from there. Walt starts a relationship with a classmate whom he coldly describes as “cute, but not gorgeous”. Bernard casually invites a female student to live in a vacant room in his new house. Joan and Bernard fiercely protect their “days” with their sons. Frank starts drinking beer and masturbating in public places (this is handled with much more discretion than that description would have you believe).
But the story itself is not what makes this movie such a pleasure. It’s the movie’s style and editing that create a unique experience. The movie clocks in at an unthinkable 81 minutes, WITH credits. I learn from the bonus features on the Blu-Ray that it was shot on Super-16 film stock with a mostly hand-held camera, lending the film a low-budget, documentary look that enhances its “reality”. Scenes last only long enough for us to get the point before a jump cut takes us to the next plot point. Normally, this would create in me a sense of nervousness or anxiety, but for some reason it didn’t work that way. I never felt cheated or short-changed. It all just felt “right.” It gave me the same sensation I get when I’m reading a really good short story with sharply-drawn characters and impeccable dialogue.
That may sound like more details than I had promised at the beginning, but it’s really just a clinical description. Words can’t express how the film’s brevity, atmosphere, dialogue, and characters all combined to produce one of the most touching films about family and/or divorce that I’ve ever seen.
(No, I HAVEN’T seen “Marriage Story” by this same director, Noah Baumbach, but I will get around to it one day. Today is not that day, though.)
I urge you to seek this out if it’s out there in streaming land. It’s a gem of a film that is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen in this genre.