Divorces are never an easy process, especially when there are children involved. Noah Baumbach’s 2005 masterpiece The Squid and The Whale provides us with such an example as the members of the Berkman family attempt to settle into their new lives post-divorce.
Noah Baumbach is most famous for his later works such as Frances Ha (2013) and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017). However, his talent truly shines in his earlier work, namely in The Squid and The Whale. The film is set within the Berkman family comprising of the mother Joan (Laura Linney), the father Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and their two sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). As the parents’ quarrels amplify to the point of divorcing, each member of the family must find a way to navigate safely through these troubling times. However, it focuses primarily on the development of the two sons as they are dragged into an adult world for which they are not yet equipped to deal with.
The film begins as Joan and Bernard’s marriage is about to fall apart. The scene of the tennis doubles match is interesting as it depicts a battle between the two parents in terms of the custody of their two sons: Joan and Frank versus Bernard and Frank. This sets the tone for the rest of the movie as the youngest son Frank veers more towards the maternal side whereas Walt picks his father’s side in everything as Bernard represents some sort of God-like figure to Walt. Thereon follows a series of blame games between the members of the family. However, no one person is to blame, the marriage simply ran its course and it was time to move on from it for the benefit of everyone.
This divide within the family can be seen from within the title of the film itself. In the movie, The Squid and The Whale refers to an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in New York. As can be seen in the image above, the two sea creatures appear to be killing each other. They represent an analogy of the parents’ quarrels and just as museum exhibits, their kids are forced to be witnesses to their conflict.
The true shining star which emanates from this production is its director Noah Baumbach. Being no stranger to dealing with a restricted budget with his prior films Kicking and Screaming and Mr Jealousy, Baumbach manages to pull off a masterclass in obtaining the most out of very little. The Squid and The Whale is portrayed with such realism due to the restricted budget and therefore, the limited number of characters within the film. The audience is forced to pay close attention to the members of the family specifically. The four protagonists’ performances contribute to this sense of extreme realism, each providing one, if not the best performances of their acting careers.
Drawing upon the director’s own upbringing in a separated family, this film will not leave the audience indifferent. Baumbach forces them to pick a side however, he provides no guidance as to which side to veer off towards. By the end of the film it becomes obvious that neither side is entirely in the right nor in the wrong.