The Squid And The Whale was Noah Baumbach's first big hit as director and put him on the map as one of the new indie filmmakers to look out for. The film, which was co-produced by Wes Anderson, was a short-and-sweet look at a dysfunctional family in the 80's.
This was obviously a personal story for Baumbach to tell and he puts the awkwardness of having your parents go through a divorce and having to grow-up during that time across extremely well. These characters are, in part, cruel and selfish and, in part, likeable and naive so you can't help but identify with them a little bit, even when they're at their worst. As the pretentious loser father Bernard, Jeff Daniels is spot-on: the character's sheer inability to not think about himself for one second, the fact everything he says to his kids is wholly inappropriate, that he doesn't even treat his son's new girlfriend to lunch and his questionable relationship with Anna Paquin's student makes him pretty repulsive all around and yet his actions are so mindless you can't help but like him somehow. In short, Daniels was definitely robbed of an Oscar nomination that year, that's for sure.
The rest of the cast is also really good with a young Jesse Eisenberg standing out particularly and giving a complex, layered performance as Bernard's oldest son Walt. The ever-reliable Laura Linney plays the latter's mother and William Baldwin has a fun supporting role as a cheesy tennis coach. Aside from the acting, the film's real strength is its sharp, rich script which not only gives the actors some brilliant lines to deliver but says a lot about these characters through limited actions and it never feels pretentious or overdone. The film works as a coming-of-age story for Walt but also as a biting comment on parenthood and divorce. It also works as a comedy in that the film is very funny throughout, even if the central theme is essentially a tragic one and there are genuinely heartfelt moments in it.
As far as indie movies go, The Squid And The Whale is one of those you simply have to catch. Great writing, great performances, solid direction: this little film may have slid under your radar upon its release but it's well worth checking it out now.