The Squid and the Whale, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is an unusually realistic, well-acted and honest film about a dysfunctional Brooklyn family in the 1980s. The film is alternately comical and serious, yet unlike most movies of this genre, it neither sentimentalizes nor demonizes any of its characters, no matter how absurd or even despicable their behavior may be. One interesting quality about this partly autobiographical film is the convincing way it portrays the values and lifestyles of a particular type of intellectual middle class family. What will disturb and even shock some viewers is the casual way these quasi-bohemian folks raise --or barely raise-- their children. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney both give superb performances as Bernard and Joan, parents who in many ways seem more like older siblings to their children. There is an almost total absence of the usual parenting concerns --these kids curse, consume alcohol and explore their sexuality with no lectures or moral condemnation from their parents. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, these are people who pride themselves on their sophistication and aesthetic approach to life, so they consider themselves above bourgeois morality. Secondly, they are simply too distracted with their petty conflicts (mainly with each other) to notice much of what their children are up to, aside from how it directly impacts them. The children, Walt and Frank (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline, who also give great performances) are somewhat more disturbed than average adolescents. The movie begins with the family playing a doubles tennis game, with Bernard and Walt playing against Joan and Frank. This mirrors the loyalties that develop as the parents separate and try to work the kinks out of an awkward joint custody arrangement.
From reading some reviews of the film, it is obvious that some people would have preferred a more moralistic tone, one that makes it clear that these parents are negligent, even evil. Yet this would have undercut one of the films' strengths, which is to portray this subculture without heavy-handed judgments. Joan and Bernard, along with their lifestyle are hardly romanticized and their flaws as parents are obvious enough. Bernard is a pompous intellectual who masks his insecurity about his fledgling writing career with an arrogant persona. For example, he calls Kafka "one of my predecessors." His wife, meanwhile , has been carrying on an affair for four years and wastes no time in dating new men right after the separation. Following this, Bernard begins dating one of his students. Both are largely oblivious to their children's behavior problems at school. There is a dark hilarity to the situation, helped along by Joan and Bernard's obtuseness. Despite their idiosyncrasies and flaws, these are not really terrible parents. While they are certainly self-centered, they are not cruel or even indifferent towards their children. Sadly, many conventional families are just as dysfunctional, if in a different manner. This family, with all its misery, does instill a certain regard for intellectual and artistic matters that is all too lacking in much of society, though this obviously comes at a price. In the balance, Bernard and Joan are actually average parents whose faults manifest in unconventional ways that reflect their lifestyle. Since the film is based on the director's actual childhood, we can safely assume that he didn't grow up to be a complete basket case. I think this is what really disturbs some people - that the sky does not fall when conventional mores are not strictly followed. Or, closer to the truth, when sufficient lip service isn't paid to these mores which, after all, many people fail to live up to. Baumbach may have survived and even prospered, but he did not come away from his childhood unscathed. His real achievement here is that he is able to scour the parents, without having to rely on sanctimonious moralizing and still allow their basic humanity and positive qualities to surface. One of the best films about family life that has come along in years.