The Squid And The Whale (USA, director Noah Baumbach): This film contained the best ensemble acting I’ve seen this year. Based on the autobiographical experiences of writer and director Baumbach (co-writer of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic – Anderson serves as producer on this film), The Squid And The Whale is about the family dynamics of a family of four going through a divorce in the mid-eighties. Father (Jeff Daniels) is a writer whose best days are behind him, yet he remains an unrepentant snob. Mother (Laura Linney) is also a writer, about to have her first novel published. When her multiple infidelities emerge, the parents decide to divorce. Their sons Walt and Frank are thrown into turmoil. This is not original stuff. But the writing is of such high quality, and the performances so genuine, that I found myself drawn right in.
The film is obviously told from the sons’ perspective. Walt seems to be like his father, snobby and self-righteous, while younger Frank seems more sensitive, though also more self-destructive. Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates’ son Owen Kline is a revelation in this role. His sister Greta also appears briefly in the film. You might remember these two from The Anniversary Party, but this is really a breakout role for Owen, and I hope he’ll continue acting.
The film makes it painfully aware how people hurt each other when they can’t talk directly about their feelings. Daniels is excellent as a man whose intellectual pride and snobbery hide his deep insecurities and the pain of rejection by his wife. And Laura Linney is able to make even an unsympathetic character a little less blameworthy. The only issues I had the film are probably related to its miniscule budget. The handheld camerawork is often a little bumpy, and the film feels a little unpolished. But after hearing how Baumbach had a 23-day shooting schedule, and took five years to obtain the funding for the film, I have to give him credit for producing a smart and moving piece of cinema.
Just as an aside, I was pleasantly surprised when the end credits rolled that the beautiful titles I’d been noticing were designed by Torontonian Leanne Shapton, who was art director at Saturday Night magazine for a few of its most visually exciting years (circa 2000-2001). I’m glad to see she’s finding new places to bring her great eye for design.