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Dysfunction junction

Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) learns more than he wants to - know about sex from Dads student (Anna Paquin).
  • Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) learns more than he wants to know about sex from Dads student (Anna Paquin).

*The Squid and the Whale (R)

"Mom and me versus you and Dad." These are the first words we hear, intoned in a child's voice, before the first shot is screened -- or fired, as it were -- in the brittle, dark and ultimately moving family comedy The Squid and the Whale. Scripted and directed by Noel Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming), it's the story of a family coming apart and the ways that children adapt and survive the breach.

The family is uniquely Brooklynesque, living in 1986 Park Slope in a book-lined brownstone with tall windows and parents who, like Baumbach's parents, are self-absorbed writers. When older son Walt is in trouble in school later in the film, his father asks if the teacher knows that "his mother and father both have PhDs in literature," as if this somehow relinquishes the boy of responsibility for his offense.

Jeff Daniels is rigid and shut down as Bernard Berkman, an author and creative writing professor whose literary light has been dimmed a bit too long for comfort. Laura Linney is Joan, his frustrated wife who wants to break out both sexually and professionally from Bernard's shrinking shadow.

Sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline) are surprised initially to hear that their parents are separating, but quickly form allegiances within the newly alienated family camps -- younger Frank with Mom and teenage Walt with Dad, at his crumbling place on the other side of the park. In a sense, the film is about Walt finding his way back to Mom by facing the truth about the family dynamic.

Baumbach's script is so tight there's little wiggle room for its characters, who speak first and think later. In an early dinner conversation, Dad glibly dismisses Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities as a minor work to Walt, who's been assigned to read it. In a later scene, Walt similarly dismisses This Side of Paradise to a girl he's trying to impress as "minor Fitzgerald," though, of course, he hasn't read it.

When Frank frets over having to return to Dad's house, where he's scared and uncomfortable, Mom breezily dismisses him. "I need some nights without you guys sometime," she says, as if he naturally should understand her adult needs.

Dad takes in a student boarder, played by Anna Paquin, who's as arch as the Berkman parents. She intentionally drops a gentle bomb one night by complimenting Joan's publication in The New Yorker, about which Walt is clueless.

Student and professor become unfeeling lovers, further confusing young Walt about his own burgeoning sexuality (and grossing out anyone who's a fan of Fly Away Home, in which Paquin played Daniels' daughter).

There's much to admire here, not least the film's ability to keep viewers interested and appalled simultaneously. The Squid and the Whale provides an uncomfortable carnival mirror that reflects our worst qualities back at us while keeping the humor intact, to protect us from gloom and despair.

Both child actors and their characters are utterly compelling, and Daniels and Linney are flawless. William Baldwin provides comic relief as Ivan, a beefy tennis coach who figures into the family as Joan's newest lover and young Frank's newest role model, much to his father's distaste.

Baumbach and music gurus Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips accessorize the film with one of the most thoughtful and articulate musical soundtracks since Wes Anderson's Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. They place the '60s and '70s rock and folk tunes with the same light hand that holds together this smart film about dissolution.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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