First, the laughter. In 2005, American indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach released his third major film and received his only Oscar nomination to date with The Squid and The Whale (one night only at the Tower – Tuesday, July 17th), a semi-autobiographical remembrance of his teenage perceptions of the divorce of his Brooklyn parents.
The title of the film refers to a famous permanent exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which depicts two awesomely powerful deep sea creatures locked in an imagined epic battle of wills to destroy the other, and is a metaphor for how 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, in one of his first movie appearances) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline, son of Kevin) see their bickering, bitter, separating parents, Bernard and Joan (played brilliantly by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney).[/fusion_text][fusion_text]Hysterical is an adjective that can be applied to extremes of either laughter or crying – and there’s a reason the adjective is the same.
In The Squid and The Whale, the flawed adults Bernard and Joan are coming apart at the mid-life seams. Bernard’s early promise of becoming a novelist has fallen aside, defaulting to a college English professor’s steady salary; he’s angry at himself for taking the road most travelled, but he lashes out at everybody else. Joan fell in love with and married a wild-child artist; now that he’s aging into a wounded narcissist, she’s completely lost interest in her “to death do us part” commitment and straying sexually with numerous male partners. Both Bernard and Joan are in pain; yet Baumbach’s tenderly satirical helps us laugh at their foibles, which we can surely recognize in parts of our own inner fears. The kids Walt and Frank are acting out. What else to do?
The adults, who are initially awarded joint custody of their two sons, are behaving with infantile immaturity, and Walt and Frank go right ahead and choose sides. Walt hilariously aligns himself with his flailing dad, whom Walt still sees as a hero; he’s learning to put others down to make himself feel valid. Yet Walt is soon backed into a corner for this attitude, aghast that his hero papa’s trail is not the one to blaze. Frank, who is just hitting puberty, sides with his sexually active mother and puts his sexuality on public display in howlingly funny, embarrassing ways. Movies can offer us two ways to recover what we’ve lost – either catharsis through laughter, or purgation through drama. Next week at MDC’s Tower Theater Miami, both options are available in profoundly moving ways for adult children of divorce. Or, simply anyone who has ever been blindsided by a love interest who deluded us from the start. Can anyone out there relate?
I would have said The Squid and The Whale remains Baumbach’s most mature, sophisticated and lasting work, had it not been for his most recent release, 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (and I thought 2015’s Mistress America was pretty exceptional, as well). Meyerowitz could only be seen on Netflix, and not in American film festivals or art cinemas, and since it hasn’t entered many conversations I’ve had with my cinephile friends, it seems that less (rather than more) of the people who would most appreciate it have actually seen it. The Squid and The Whale plays as a fascinating companion piece to Meyerowitz; it’s like how Walt and Frank turned out more than a decade later, when they’ve had kids themselves, and still coping with those abandonment issues. Seeing it in retrospect is like watching a true origins story.
Laughing (or choking) through The Squid and The Whale is good preparation for the more sobering, somber and much more dangerous new film on the same themes, Xavier Legrand’s Custody (opening Friday, July 20th, and playing for a week’s run). Legrand’s feature is adapted from his 2013 Oscar-nominated short film “Just Before Losing Everything”, and it won the 2018 Miami Film Festival’s Jordan Ressler Screenwriting Award for an exemplary first-produced feature screenplay. In Custody, an 11-year-old boy, Julien, is caught in a joint-custody arrangement. He’s clearly afraid of his father, as his mother is – but her former husband is a smooth-talker who knows the right things to say in front of a judge. As the drama unfolds, there are moments you can’t help but fear for the boy’s safety, but it’s Julien’s mother that ultimately wins our sympathy. She too, once fell for the silky talk and the smooth confidence of the man who now rattles her nightmares; it’s her constant disappointment in life, and herself, for allowing such a delusion to occur that really gets under our skin.