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Before Mark Zuckerberg, there was Jesse Eisenberg. Naturally aware with an acute presence in all his films, Eisenberg has an image and demeanor that project genius far ahead of his time. As one who possesses an aura of elevated intelligence, he was predestined to play Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.”
In an aisle of the Little Store in West Duluth, I randomly came across “The Squid and The Whale.” With casting that includes Laura Linney, Jeff Daniels, and Eisenberg, it seemed like a given I would snatch it up at $5.00. The movie won the Gotham award in 2005 for best ensemble cast and was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award.
“The Squid and the Whale” is based on Noah Baumbach’s childhood experience of suffering alongside his younger brother from the divorce of his parents. It is not a run-of-the-mill family drama. The father, Bernard (Jeff Daniels), who sports a beard in a mid-life slump, engages his two teenage sons in discussions on Franz Kafka, the meaning of Charles Dickens’ work, and the poetic tragedy of existential interpretation. Bernard is a dependable father who seeks the truth of events with academic reference and sincere meaning, hoping those around him are as layered and deep thinking.
When his wife Joan Berkman, played by Laura Linney, kicks him to the curb, Bernard is more than startled. After spending the night on a thin mattress roll-away, he informs his sons that there will be a family meeting that evening. When supper comes around, Joan appears last at the family meeting, with a certain arrogance and detachment. Bernard, the father and college English professor, gently yet matter-of-factly states that there will be a trial separation and joint custody for the meantime. The kids challenge him on how joint custody works on an odd-numbered week. Joan says, “Dad will have you Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and every other Thursday. Bernard thought of that himself.”
Walt, the high school senior played by Eisenberg, grills his parents’ motives and decisions. “Don’t break up this family. This family is a good thing,” he directs his mother. The younger son, Frank, is more bewildered that he has to spend nights apart from his mother. They all argue about the family cat.
Walt finds out a few scenes later that Joan has been cheating on Dad, more than once. He confronts his mother, who says, “Oh yeah, you met one of them. You discussed the Rolling Stones over take out.” Walt says back, “You are running a regular brothel under our noses.” He disdains his mother, telling her how disgusted he is and that he will be staying at his dad’s permanently.
Frank, the comedic one, starts sneaking beers when his parents aren’t looking. He also acts out by jerking off in the corner of the middle school library, spreading semen over books. Not quite normal behavior, but the behavior of one who feels alienated from the world. Walt continues to hold his distance from his mother. He writes a song he claims is his own but is actually a little-known song written by Pink Floyd called “Hey You.” He wins the high school talent show and $100 with the assumption by the committee that he wrote the song.
Joan, Bernard, Joan’s lover, and a student Bernard took under his wing attend the performance. Afterward, Walt refuses to go out to eat with all of them. He doesn’t want to be around his mom’s new lover, let alone her. Joan’s lover is the family tennis coach, whom Bernard calls a Philistine. Frank asks, “What’s a Philistine?” Dad tells him, “It’s someone who doesn’t like books or interesting movies.” Basically, an unevolved jock. Ivan, the tennis coach, is still cherished by every member of the family because he is kind and uncomplicated and mentors Frank in tennis lessons, but this affair causes a deeper wedge between Walt and Joan.
Walt finds a girlfriend named Sophie who is into reading the classics. Walt takes his father’s knowledge base of literature and impresses Sophie with it. The segment of scenes with Sophie is a portrayal of distrust as Walt navigates the dating world. Sophie, who is emotionally available and a good fit for Walt, is a comfort during the separation. Yet Walt gravitates toward Lilli, a racy grad student whom his father lets rent a room from them. She writes sexually permeable short stories that make students’ hair stand up.
Walt often attends his dad’s classes. Bernard makes off-handed remarks, even in front of Sophie, about Lilli’s X-rated writing, which is awkward. Bernard equates her to Kafka, whose archetypes of alienation, psychological brutality, and mystical language probe the depths of the human condition.
The movie overlay generally speaks to the constant adjustment the young sons must make during the transition from a two-parent family to living co-existent lives with each of them. The mother has clearly taken a selfish vein in her newfound writing and her pursuit of the perfect lover, leaving her sons as plan B. Frank refuses to detach from his mother and shows up one night only to find she has just finished sleeping with Ivan. “It’s not your night, Frank. Sometimes I need time away from you.”
The things about this movie that work are the richness of the characters, the literary references to life, and the believability of a family unit in decay. Jesse Eisenberg is the driving force in the movie, demanding a higher ethical code from his mother, defending his father in a broken state, and busting his brother in the chops when he isn’t coping or adjusting.
The moment of truth comes when Walt must face a school-assigned shrink for lying about writing the song for the talent show. The school psychologist says, “Name one genuine memory you have that’s significant.” Walt retorts, “Isn’t that a stock question, especially from one that only has a master’s degree?” But he opens up anyway, telling the story of how he and his mother went to a museum to see two life-sized images of the squid and whale attacking each other. He explains how his mother gave solace to him on how things take place in the sea and how that day he felt close to her.
At the end of the movie, he runs back to that museum to look at the giant whale and large squid. He has come back to an emotional place where he can remember a time when his mother was his protector and he respected her. After nurturing his father and his depression, Walt is able to break away and seize that time of renewal. Then he is able to move on. A+ (Highly recommended)