2006-02-01 / Book Review

‘The Squid And The Whale’: A Family In Crisis Gazette

Gazette a movie review by Rose A. Whitney

Set in Park Slope, Brooklyn in 1986, “The Squid and the Whale” is a penetrating dissection of a family in crisis and clearly shows how the devastating process of divorce affects all members of a family.

The middle-class, professional Berkman family consists of mother Joan (Laura Linney), father Bernard (Jeff Daniels), teenage son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and pre-teen son Frank (Owen Kline).

Joan Berkman, an amateur writer, after many unsuccessful years has finally had her writing accepted for publication by the New Yorker magazine On the surface, Joan appears to be a sophisticated woman with middle-class values. However, beneath this veneer she has exhibited a pattern of promiscuous behavior in the past. It is soon revealed that throughout the marriage she has had two affairs; one lasting four years and the other several months.

Bernard Berkman, the father is an arrogant, obnoxious, overbearing, overly critical intellectual snob. Although a college literature professor and published author, he is undergoing a midlife crisis—his latest novel has been rejected by several publishers and his career is faltering.

Frank aligns himself with his mother and blames his father for the breakup of the marriage. He copes with the family crisis by continuing his beloved tennis lessons in an attempt to escape the bitter reality of his troubled home life, but he soon takes a downward spiral when he begins drinking and sexually acting out in school.

Walt, on the other hand, aligns himself with his father and blames his mother, to whom he is rude and disrespectful, for the divorce. The stress of the situation causes Walt to experiment sexually. After his guitar performance in a school talent contest, he is discovered to have purposely taken credit for music actually written by the group Pink Floyd. Revealed as a fraud, he is forced to return the $100 contest prize.

Unfortunately, rather than being emotionally available for the children so as to guide them through this crisis, both parents are absorbed in their own emotional problems. Joan begins an affair with Frank's tennis teacher, Ivan (William Baldwin) and Bernard has an affair with a 21year-old girl. Meanwhile, both children are abandoned and left to survive on their own.

At the end of the film, Walt visits the popular Squid and Whale exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. When he was younger, his mother brought him to this exhibit, and this memory of happier times is a source of consolation for him. It is likely, too, that he identifies with the squid, also facing overwhelming problems as represented by the whale.

The alienation and disorientation of children who have to live a life of joint custody is explored with great insight and clarity. Having to re-create their lives in two separate households is a logistic nightmare in which even the issue of who gets the cat can become a major problem. The extraordinary performances in this wonderful film artfully capture the agony of a family's demise.

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