The Squid and the Whale

The Squid and the Whale ★★★★★

This is my first watch of Squid and The Whale in a couple years, and I was surprised how much I viewed it from the perspective of Jeff Daniels’ Bernard this time around.

It’s a great thing about this film – you can watch it through the eyes of any of its four central characters. All four of them have a very different outlook on the same situation. None of them are especially villainized for the way the act, as we get a lot of insight on what’s making them act the way they do.

Bernard wants to be a big deal, even if he would never admit it. But he isn’t a big deal. A bigger deal than some, sure, but it’s very clear he isn’t creating the seismic waves across the cultural landscape that he envisioned.

As a result, in what is likely a less-than-conscious form of midlife crisis, he finds the people to whom he can be a big deal. His teenage son. A somewhat fawning literary student. And eventually, a cat. In these eyes, he can be the larger-than-life figure he always saw himself becoming – rather than just a guy increasingly few people want to be around.

The Jeff Daniels / Anna Paquin casting thing is kind of ingenious. Yeah, it can be read as sort of a cheeky, gimmicky move – that they once played a father and his young daughter, whereas here, they play a lecherous professor and his young sexual conquest. But it’s not just done as a wink to the audience. It’s an effective way to make viewers feel viscerally skeeved out by the dynamic.

This movie gets adolescent father-son relationships so right. It’s one of those magic things. The specifics don’t have to resemble your own life (they certainly don’t for me) and yet the relationships feel so eerily familiar and accurate.

The film also simultaneously acts as a tongue-in-cheek vocabulary lesson for words intellectuals throw around — “philistine,” “Kafkaesque,” the concepts of “minor” and “major” works. When I first watched this as a teenager, it was my first time hearing any of these terms, and now I can’t help but laugh whenever they pop up in the wild.

I also think Walt ripping off the Pink Floyd song has some resonance to Noah Baumbach’s real life career. Before The Squid and The Whale, Baumbach made several movies that were heavily derivative of existing works. This film was his first truly original, personal statement. Even subsequently, Baumbach has faltered in really developing a unique voice all his own, making this film particularly special.

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