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The Squid and the Whale was by far my favourite of the movies I saw at this month’s Vancouver International Film Festival. Ignore the fact that I only saw two. Squid is one of my favourites of any movie I’ve seen this year, anywhere. It’s both charmingly bitter and bitterly funny, with compulsively watchable characters of varying degrees of unlikeability, and beautifully textured performances from the cast.

The tension between the Berkmans, Bernard (Jeff Daniels, Pleasantville) and Joan (Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me), is part emotional detachment, part power struggle. When they sit down with their sons, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, Roger Dodger) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline, son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) to discuss their separation, even that fraught moment becomes a conflict over what will become of the cat in the new joint custody arrangement.

Bernard, once a famous writer, is now a professor who clings to his past glory and elevates his own ego by trampling on others’, especially his eldest son’s. He’s such a master of it that Walt idolizes his father and imitates his insufferable elitism. Walt dismisses works he’s never read as “minor Fitzgerald” and attempts to impress a girl by calling the ending to The Metamorphosis “Kafkaesque,” an adjective he’s heard his dad use – causing her to mumble in confusion that, yes, it would be, given that Kafka wrote it.

Walt would be insufferable himself except that we see how he is manipulated by his father, who clings to the power he has over Walt while he flails to hold on to his precious identity. As Joan’s writing starts to attract attention, the bewildered Bernard can’t comprehend what his life has become. Exiled from the comfortable family home, he lives in a run-down place in a less prestigious neighbourhood and begins an affair with one of his students, Lili (Anna Paquin, who – ick – played Daniels’ daughter in Fly Away Home), despite the fact that Walt is also attracted to her.

As corrosive as Bernard is, he’s also pathetic, and Daniels imbues him with a bewilderment about what his life has become, and how little it matches his elevated view of himself, that is comic and occasionally touching. While The Squid and the Whale has been seen as something of a poison pen script to writer/director Noah Baumbach’s own father, writer Jonathan Baumbach, Bernard’s uncomprehending sadness tempers the bitterness.

Because Bernard is so clearly an elitist, egomaniacal gasbag, and Joan is more sympathetic, it’s easy to try to categorize them as bad parent versus good parent . But while Joan’s flaw’s are perhaps more subtle, she shows flashes of profound selfishness and a propensity for giving her sons a little too much information about her sex life.

In the dad versus mom debate, Walt is clearly on the side of dad – calling Joan a whore at one point – while Frank is initially on the side of mom. But it’s young Frank who realizes early that neither is the path to carving out his own identity. In defiance of his father’s elitism, Frank decides he’s a philistine, just like his dopey tennis coach Ivan (William Baldwin), who, it turns out, happens to be an active part of mom’s sex life.

The metaphor of the squid and the whale is made visual – though, I confess, not necessarily completely clear – at the end of the film, when Walt visits that exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. It’s a moment of clarity for him, though, as he finally sees the smothering influence of his father, and yet Baumbach resists creating a tidy ending for his complex characters.

(Cross-posted to Blogcritics)