Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Squid And The Whale (***1/2)

"The Squid and The Whale" is testimony to good coming from the painful sometimes. Here is a movie about four rather specific characters (a husband, wife and two sons) who go through a difficult period in their lives. And somehow the movie becomes about all families. 

The parents announce that they are getting divorced and the film is about the immediate, consequential and inconsequential events that follow. The happenings here are too specific - in time, in place, in the minutiae of the details - to be entirely fictional. And so I presume that much of this movie is a documentation of a divorce that was borne witness by the screenwriter. This does not takes away from the achievements of this movie in any manner. In being honest to the point of embarrassment, it at least gets rid of the self-consciousness that plagues these sorts of movies, right off the bat. Movies about families breaking apart tend to be either too self-aware, or too keen to point fingers, or the most offensive of all, melodramatic. 'The Squid and The Whale' has the good sense to indulge in none of that. There is usually great pain in the unraveling of those who at some point have shared great love. This film wisely chooses to be utterly matter of fact in depicting the events that follow the announcement of this unraveling.

Sure, there are arguments, and misinformed dalliances, and oversights and pettinesses and events driven by poor judgment. However, it is all played straight. And the camera never lingers a second too long to extract payback from some emotional moment or another.

There were many things I admired about this film. First about the acting. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney have of late reached that place in their careers where there is no need to adhere to vanity and this has allowed  their performances to be unfussy. To be able to free a character from the desire to be likeable is a measure of progress. Linney and Daniels here go through their roles with the ease of having lived in the skins of these characters for a lifetime. And the two young actors who play their sons have the unpleasant task of being brutally honest in the depiction of adolescent anxiety and all of the embarrassments that come with raging hormones and confused allegiances -and they are up to the task. Which brings me to the other thing that I appreciated about the movie: the honest depiction of adolescent sexuality. This is always a slippery slope and most filmmakers, for good reason, stay away it. In its forthright and non-judgemental take on what these two boys are going through, the movie reminded me of "You, Me, And Everyone We Know", just about the only other recent movie I know that has gotten this right. It is difficult to be candid, but not prurient or judgmental when it comes to depicting teen sexuality - and this movie achieves it. What I also liked about the movie is that it is so quintessentially rooted to a specific location, in this case, Brooklyn. The geography of where the events occur becomes a character of its own and adds another layer of authenticity to the movie. 

All of this may make you wonder if this is a funny movie, or a painful and sad one. It is actually neither, at least not deliberately. It walks you step by step through all of the fumbling messy proceedings that unfold after the announcement of a divorce and seemingly does not have an agenda to amuse or to elicit sympathy. And somehow, for this movie, that is enough. 

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