The movie isn't "minor Baumbach," but it feels more like a good, tight short story than a novel. Its scheme is a little tidy: Under the sway of his dad, Walt is furious at his mom (he even calls her a whore); then it hits him that his dad is a monumental egotist who doesn't completely see him. So maybe he was too hard on his mom … What makes the film feel unfinished is that Joan remains elusive and un-filled-in: Her soothing pet names for her sons become more and more irritating, her easy mockery belies her warmth, and her sexuality is a source of unease. (She had a long-term affair with a neighbor, the father of one of Walt's friends, and, shortly after Bernard is banished, takes up with her tennis instructor, played by William Baldwin.) The hole in the film isn't a reflection on Linney's performance. It's as if Baumbach, his hands full of oily whale blubber, didn't want to deal with an exploding sac of squid ink. And who can blame him, really?
The irresolution and anxiety is right there in Baumbach's filmmaking—in how he still can't shake his angry, competitive father from the frame. What keeps this from being an "I hate Dad" orgy is how alive Baumbach is to Bernard's pain—and to Daniels' performance, which has an aura of bewilderment and incomprehension, like a dethroned king who looks around and finds only a single courtier—his son. Driving around Park Slope, Bernard is outraged when an on-street parking space he occupied a few hours earlier is gone: Everywhere he looks he sees signs of his diminished potency. What kills our sympathy, finally, is that he can't help using what little power he has left to best his son. When they both eye a nubile student of Bernard's (a radiant Anna Paquin), there's little doubt who'll end up sleeping with her. (Movie trivia buffs will have reason to feel even more righteous anger: Paquin played Daniels' daughter in the wholesome Fly Away Home.)
The Squid and the Whale ends up reinforcing the thesis of Elizabeth Marquardt's new book (full disclosure: edited by my wife) Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. Marquardt's contention—which will be embraced by knee-jerk social conservatives but is worth considering anyway—is that while many divorces are justified (and, in the long term, healthy) there's no such thing as a "good" one. Traveling between parents, children must do what they aren't equipped to do: take sides, keep secrets, weigh opposing lifestyles, and reconcile their parents' different worlds in a way they wouldn't ordinarily need to—even in a home riddled with conflict. Marquardt says this emotional labor "restructures childhood itself." And while I haven't examined her data (and am not a child of divorce), I can think of few pieces of evidence more compelling than the image of a young boy staring hopelessly at a giant squid and whale. ... 10:35 a.m. PT
Correction (10/18): The original version of this article stated that Anna Paquin's character was both a student of Bernard's and a classmate of Walt's. She is, in fact, only a student of Bernard's.