Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, Haley Feiffer, Anna Paquin
Director: Noah Baumbach
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Sony Home Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 81 Minutes
Release Date: March 21, 2006

“Has there been anything going on at home that may have led to this kind of behavior?”

“Well, Bernard left him behind for three days last week.

“And, of course Frank’s mother divorced me earlier this year, which might have something to do with that.”

Film ****

What a marvelous and original film is writer/director Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. Not since the films of Wes Anderson have I seen a more observant, and extremely quirky, human comedy. It should be pointed out that Mr. Anderson himself is one of the film’s producers. One thing is perfectly clear; Baumbach and Anderson know how to craft fantastic films that don’t get made as much as they should.

The film, set in 1986, is a winning account of a family going through the one thing that no family wants to find themselves going through, an ugly separation/divorce. The parents in this situation just happen to be two renowned writers, Bernard and Joan Berkman (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney). Baumbach’s film is indeed personal, as he was the son of two writers, novelist Jonathan Baumbach and film critic Georgia Brown.

The announcement of their separation isn’t accepted too well, of course, by the two sons in the family, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). As permanent custody is debated, Walt will stay with the father at his new residence while Frank will stay with his mother. There will obviously be swap off nights between the two.

So what led to the divorce exactly? Pure dissatisfaction as Joan sees it. In fact, it was so unsatisfying that she decided to engage in adulterous affairs for the past four years. Bernard pretty much knew about the adultery, but decided to keep silent about it. Joan is currently involved with Ivan (William Baldwin), Frank’s tennis instructor.

And as writers, Joan happens to be the more successful at the present time. Bernard had published an acclaimed novel years ago but is now experiencing something of a drought season. Meanwhile, Joan is having strong success with a story she has just sold to The New Yorker. Bernard is teaching a creative writing class, where he develops intimate feelings for a student named Lily (Anna Paquin).

The film also focuses on Walt and Frank’s discovery of sex and love in high school. Walt becomes infatuated with a girl named Sophie (Haley Feiffer) and they begin to experiment a little with sex. Meanwhile, Frank is going through puberty, which leads to the discovering of self gratification, which then leads to a problem at school; I’ll leave that unmentioned.

When it just so happens that Lily gets kicked out of her apartment, Bernard is quick to offer her a room at his place. And Walt finds himself becoming more attracted to the wild Lily, that he even considers dumping Sophie so that he can indulge in something a bit more adventurous, despite not knowing that his father holds the same feelings for her.

Many of the funny moments in The Squid and the Whale come from the smallest details. Such examples include when Walt performs a song at a talent show that he claims he wrote, when that song turns out to be “Hey You” by Pink Floyd. Another scene is when Walt asks his dad to accompany him and his date to the movies. The movie they end up going to see is Blue Velvet. Priceless.

If you were to read the basic plot outline of The Squid and the Whale, it may seem like a story you’ve seen before. This isn’t the first film to depict the process of two parents splitting apart. But Baumbach’s writing is as witty and dead-on as it gets. It’s the exact quality that makes this film the original piece of work that it is. The Oscar nod for Original Screenplay was extremely well deserved.

And how about this cast? I’ve long been a fan of Jeff Daniels, and I can easily say that this is his best performance to date, and one that will be hard to surpass. I’ve maintained that this year’s Best Actor nominees were all superb, but after seeing Daniels in this film I may have detected a true snub. Bernard is a man going through many different emotions, but the film never lets us forget that he is a true egotist and a man who thinks he knows everything about every subject.

One can always count on Laura Linney to deliver the goods, and she does so once again in this film. And as the two sons, Jesse Eisenberg is a true acting discovery, as is young Owen Kline, the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. And there is strong supporting work from William Baldwin, Haley Feiffer and the always luminous Anna Paquin.

Though I missed it in the theaters, I will indeed hail The Squid and the Whale as one of the truly best films of 2005. Insightful and thoroughly hilarious, this is a film that represents why independent film exists in the first place.

Video ***

This is a quite good anamorphic offering from Sony. A good bit of the early scenes had me thinking otherwise, as noticeable bits of grain seem to go in and out, but as the film progressed the image quality got a whole lot better. The film was shot a very low budget, and the early picture flaws may have come as a result of that. The remainder of the film is very nicely handled, complete with clear picture and good color usage.

Audio ***

Though a dialogue oriented film, the 5.1 mix makes tremendous use of notable areas, in particular that of music. A good deal of 80s music tracks turn up in the film, including the actual cut of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” (one of my all time favorite Floyd songs), and even a couple of Tangerine Dream songs from Risky Business make their way into the movie. Dialogue delivery is terrifically clear, as well. A very good sound mix.

Features ***1/2

This Sony release boasts some truly nice features, including a rare sort of commentary track. Writer/director Noah Baumbach chose to construct a commentary in which he basically commented on all aspects of the film, but without the actual movie running at the same time. Instead, it runs over a series of on the set images (nice touch). Also featured is a behind the scenes featurette, an interview with Noah Baumbach and writer Phillip Lopate, and bonus trailers.

The disc also includes a unique collectable insert, which is very much worth mentioning since it’s become so hard pressed to find one inside any DVD release.


The Squid and the Whale is the crowning independent film achievement of 2005, and by that I mean “true independent filmmaking”. If it’s top notch writing, directing and acting that you are seeking, then this film will satisfy greatly. A true must see!

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