Directed by Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale follows the story of two boys who attempt to navigate their parents’ divorce. The divorce is complicated, not only because of the dynamic between the dad, Bernard (Jeff Daniels), and the mom, Joan (Laura Linney), but also because the boys are in that stage of growing up where one’s own moral compass isn’t quite pointing in any direction. Their simplistic view of the divorce stems from the concept that one parent must be the victim and the other, the offender. It is difficult to make the audience feel empathy for all characters in any given film, but Baumbach excels in this regard. Although each character has obvious flaws (for example, Joan was unfaithful during her marriage), the divorce is heavy for everyone.

In many ways, I liked The Squid and the Whale better than Marriage Story. Although The Squid and the Whale didn’t have a single scene quite as extraordinary as the famous fight between Charlie and Nicole in Marriage Story, its composition as a whole seemed less theatrical and more authentic. I felt the plot of Marriage Story was written to be viewed by an audience, while in The Squid and the Whale, it seemed like I was the third party observing a common and deeply empathetic situation. The individual dysfunctional tendencies of Frank (Owen Kline), the 12-year old son, and Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), his 16-year old brother, make it clear that they are a product of many of their parents’ flaws. This is not to say that we are ultimately the cookie cutter product of our parents, but rather that their trauma is ingrained in our ways, whether we notice it or not.

Bernard’s view on the world left a stark impression on me, as it reflected the attitudes of many people I’ve encountered. He carries himself with a wilting, yet boastful self-confidence, which acts as a defense mechanism of sorts. He pushes his idea of what an educated person looks like onto his kids. He tells Walt that the new man Joan is seeing, who also happens to be Frank’s tennis coach, is an uninteresting man, just because he’s not into the same posh literature and films that Bernard prides himself of knowing. He inserts himself in conversations, not to contribute, but because he believes his opinion is valuable to those around him. This stark painting of Bernard is what makes him such a strong character in the movie. When he suffers from a heart attack towards the end of the film, we breathe relief to find him alive and his annoying self.

While Joan, the mother, seems to be the objective villain of the situation from Walt’s eyes, she makes an argument for her own suffering that Walt can’t seem to understand. She cheated on Bernard during their marriage, but Bernard’s neglect towards her needs makes him a villain as well. Frank, on the other hand, clings desperately to his mom, who treats him like a precious doll, all the while fucking his tennis coach. Ultimately, The Squid and the Whale paints a perfect picture of imperfection, looping the audience into an unforgettable family who seems to be that odd, distant neighbor down the block who everyone talks about but no one really knows.

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