Nominated for best original screenplay at the 2006 Academy Awards, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale makes its way onto Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection. The film chronicles the lives two brothers growing up in 1980s Brooklyn as they navigate their parents divorce. Baumbach’s directorial career has been varied, with the filmmaker having released ranging from the terrific, insightful Frances Ha, and lesser efforts like While We’re Young, which feels like your aunt that desperately tries to seem young and relevant. His finest film to date is still his third feature, The Squid and the Whale, which balances an incredibly difficult task of making some seriously ugly characters feel sympathetic.
“You and dad versus me and mom”, says youngest son Frank (Owen Kline) as their family plays tennis. This family division is made apparent immediately on the tennis court, as patriarch Bernard (Jeff Daniels) instructs his son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) to aim at his mother Joan’s (Laura Linney) weak backhand shot. As Baumbach’s handheld camera follows the action, tension begins to build dramatically between the family, and its clear that something toxic is about to unfold. Soon after, Bernard and Joan sit their kids down to share the news: they’re getting divorced.
What is particularly exceptional about The Squid and the Whale is its astonishing sense of honesty. The films tone is almost acidic, as the parents do not shy away from nastiness and name calling in front of their children. The choice to portray things from the perspective of the two sons is a winning move. Though it may seem as if both Walt and Frank’s behaviour is deplorable, the film never lets you forget that these are two children who just want the love and respect of their parents, and this is particularly clear in Walt’s adopting the character traits of his acerbic father Bernard. Though the sons behave poorly and make some shocking decisions, they always remain hugely sympathetic, which is a mammoth achievement for Baumbach, who also wrote the film’s script. The script beautifully mines humour out of ugly situations, and is paced perfectly, allowing every one of the film’s 81 minutes feel valuable.
The film’s vision of 1980s Brooklyn is made visually sumptuous thanks to the new 4K digital restoration, supervised by the films cinematographer Robert Yeoman and Baumbach, and the 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack sounds great. The lack of a commentary track is a real disappointment, and while there is an excellent interview with Noah Baumbach included, his candidness and insight only make the fact that he didn’t provide a full feature-length commentary all the more disappointing. Also included are interviews with the main cast members, and an engaging converstation about the film’s score and other music in the film between Baumbach and composers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. The disc also includes some audition footage and film trailers, and Behind “The Squid and the Whale”, a documentary featuring set footage and further cast interviews. The package is a decent one, but for such an innovative and original little film, it’s a shame some more unique features are not included.
The Squid and the Whale is at times difficult to watch, and its keen sense of reality really makes the terrific performances all the more potent. This is a solid release with great audio and video, and while the special features may not be as interesting as the film itself, this is still a worthwhile purchase: it’s a top-tier coming-of-age story.