"Mum and me versus you and Dad," are the opening words to The Squid And The Whale and the ensuing tennis match succinctly encapsulates the tensions and allegiances within the Berkman clan. This isn't some gentle family knockabout: Dad is desperate to win every point and fires a ball directly at his wife, prompting her to storm off the court and thus triggering a furious marital argument...
Writer/director Noah Baumbach, hitherto best-known for co-scripting Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic, here draws on personal memories of his own parents' divorce. His surrogate self, Walt, blames his mother for the split and hero-worships his novelist father, copying the latter's literary opinions to impress fellow pupil Sophie (Halley Feiffer). Meanwhile, Frank identifies with Joan and acts out his distress by experimenting with alcohol and leaving his sperm over library books and lockers.
The Squid And The Whale is crammed with cinematic references: Bernard hilariously accompanies Walt and Sophie to a screening of Blue Velvet and even after suffering a heart attack is quoting lines from the finale of À Bout De Souffle. More important, though, is the fact that Baumbach's humour is rooted in a sense of real emotional pain - think Woody Allen circa Manhattan - and he presents the viewer with a clear-eyed vision of a son gradually realising his father's profound selfishness.
Shot in earthy tones, with the mobile camerawork reflecting the mood of emotional flux, this tightly edited work clocks in at a crisp 81 minutes. And among the fine performances, a bearded Daniels merits acclaim. His Bernard is a pompously egotistical name-dropper for whom the worst crime is to be a philistine, yet beneath his character's patronising pedantry, the actor manages to convey a very human inner despair.
Everyone has their reasons in this well-acted US indie, with director Baumbach offering a winning blend of barbed comedy and poignancy.