The Squid and the Whale demands much of its viewer, directed as it is toward an audience who has lived through the divorce of their parents. This was, apparently, a somewhat autobiographical film by Noah Baumbach, although it’s quite certain that he borrowed more than a little inspiration from the films of his producer (and recent co-writer) Wes Anderson, particularly The Royal Tenenbaums. Indeed, it appears that The Squid and the Whale was filmed in the same New York neighborhood as Tenenbaums and even includes a strong tennis element, a couple brothers, and a book fetish, to name only a few.
Baumbach employs a cinema-vérité style that differs substantially from Anderson’s hyper-two-dimensional, telephoto-flattened, landscape/portrait-influenced cinematography. Baumbach’s camera functions in sync with the grittiness of the film’s content, which is sharper and rawer than Anderson’s stuff. Humor is present in The Squid and the Whale, but it’s much less comfortable, less laugh-out-loud than in Tenenbaums. Every laugh here is accompanied by a cringe, a fact that many must interpret as deeper sensitivity on Baumbach’s part toward his characters. While Anderson has been accused of not caring for his characters, it would be difficult to put such a charge toward Baumbach. (For the record, we do not share this opinion concerning Anderson.)
The Squid and the Whale pierces the inner space of its characters’ human psyches in a profound way. This film has a way of following the viewer around long after the screening is over. Since it seems to be impossible here to look at this film without reference to Tenenbaums, let’s continue with the comparative study. The very title The Royal Tenenbaums carries the implication with it that all the characters in the film are essentially the same singular character. They can all be defined in the same way despite their “quirky” differences. In many ways, this is often true of Wes Anderson’s films. This work from Baumbach, on the other hand, is working toward the opposite goal: demonstrating the differences separating the characters from one another, even those belonging to the same family. It is the older son’s attempts to imitate his father that most clearly betray his distinct individuality.
Baumbach is unafraid to explore the deep-seated and awfully uncomfortable realities that may follow in the life of a prepubescent boy as his parents are neglecting him and pursuing their own narcissistic pleasures. He does so very ably and weaves a cohesive story together without neglecting one of the characters in the mix. The extreme honesty, lack of flashy style, and unpretentious art that concludes the film work together quite well and seem to disarm the viewer from reacting against the film. Also not unlike Anderson, Baumbach reaches toward something mythic in nature, born out of family and human experience. The referent contained in the title makes a beautiful and powerful appearance toward the film’s end. It is situated up high, it is looked up at, it is wondered over, it transcends.