If there's one thing I've been able to use as an excuse for nearly every one of my personal failings, it's my parents' divorce. Why am I so cripplingly self-conscious? Why, divorce! Why am I paranoid that those I'm closest to are scheming behind my back? Yep—divorce. The reason for my emotional cowardice and my bristling at the mere concept of marriage? Well, that's just a no-brainer. (It's a sad, easy tactic, blaming my parents for my own faults—but the fact that their divorce is a legit cause behind some of my problems makes the act all the more damning.)
A lot of films have tried to deal with the ever-more-popular act of divorce, but perhaps the most accurate is Noah Baumbach's subtle, smart, and fearless The Squid and the Whale, one of the best pictures of the year.
Set in 1986 Brooklyn, The Squid and the Whale is told largely via two brothers, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline). While the good-hearted Frank takes after his sensitive, searching mother Joan (Laura Linney), the adamant, confused Walt mimics the traits of his pretentious professor father, Bernard (Jeff Daniels, whose standout performance is merely part of an all-around excellent cast). Strung together in a house rife with tension (Bernard's a once-great novelist who's fallen into a creative abyss, unfortunately timed as Joan's newfound writing career is taking off), Bernard and Joan's conflicts come out in simple, unexpected ways: Bernard coaches Walt on his mother's weaknesses in tennis, while Joan encourages Walt to read A Tale of Two Cities seconds after Bernard dismisses it as "minor Dickens." The stage is set for the painful split everyone sees coming: Bernard moves out to a shitty house, where he insists the boys come for half the week; Joan celebrates her newfound freedom and literary success; Walt experiments with girls and claims credit for writing Pink Floyd's "Hey You" at his school talent show; and Frank takes to declaring himself a philistine (much to the chagrin of his father) and masturbating in the school library. Left in a confusing, backhanded world of shared custody and misfiring emotions, Walt and Frank struggle with growing up as members of a fractured family—and figuring out who's got custody of the family cat.
Wes Anderson produced The Squid and the Whale (and Baumbach was Anderson's co-writer on last year's The Life Aquatic), and his faint fingerprints can be seen on Baumbach's sometimes whimsical, sometimes heartbreaking film. But Baumbach is his own filmmaker, and a damn good one, packing his film with disconcerting humor, solid emotional beats, and a storytelling rhythm that's effortlessly organic. But Baumbach's greatest talent is in how painfully relatable The Squid and the Whale is—it's a film rooted in the human element, in the simple recounting, with no judgments and no clichés, of a family falling apart and its individuals rebuilding and accepting their shattered identities. Critically speaking, The Squid and the Whale is a great film. More personally (I can also blame my self-centeredness on the divorce, right?), it's an affecting, insightful experience. While they might be able to viciously sear lives, The Squid and the Whale proves that the universal tenets of divorce can also make for beautiful storytelling.