In a monologue played over a selection of film stills, director Noah Baumbach reveals that financiers wanted redemption for Jeff Daniels’ crabby lead character. “Not in my movie,” Baumbach said, and rightly so. The Life Aquatic writer’s ’80s-set, semi-autobiographical splash about parental break-up hardly dives into unfamiliar American-indie waters, but it’s certainly singular and properly choppy. Affection and humour combine with wry perception, particularly in the case of Daniels’ ageing novelist-turned-teacher, Bernard. Peering out over a face-dragging beard, Daniels finds the truth in this sad-sack through minimal means. With his shirt tucked into his jeans, self-righteous rants against “philistines” and pompous asides about Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities, he nails with apparent effortlessness a former wonder boy who hasn’t noticed his time is up.
The co-stars are equally natural. While Laura Linney is razor-sharp as Bernard’s increasingly successful writer-wife, the kids play it cool. Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t solicit affection as eldest son Walt (Baumbach’s surrogate), the serious young man who parrots his father’s prattle and passes off Pink Floyd’s ‘Hey You’ as his own work at a school show, but you care about him. And as a riskier troubled kid, Owen Kline (son of Kevin) generates warmth even as he gets jiggy with his jism in the school library. During a dry interview on this lukewarm DVD, Baumbach says he instructed the kids not to read their lines “as being funny”. Far from feeling forced, the humour hinges on real empathy. “No one is completely innocent and no one is completely guilty,” says Linney on the disc’s decent but brief Making Of featurette, and Baumbach’s well-toned vignettes show how the tide of a divorce drags everyone under.
But The Squid And The Whale is about more than just family. From the music (girls play Bryan Adams, the parents play the McGarrigle Sisters and Loudon Wainwright) to the burnished, autumnal cinematography, it’s about how ’60s bohemians got beached in Reagan’s era. A tale of two generations, in which time doesn’t turn back and the parents don’t reunite. Redemption isn’t Noah’s arc but, like Walt at the film’s close and by implication Baumbach, too, Squid gets its strength from daring to face messy reality head-on.