The Squid and the Whale - Divorce at the Cinema
Sundance Film Festival double award winner (for Noah Baumbach's directing and screenwriting) The Squid and the Whale opens today at Denver's Chez Artiste movie theater.
(Update: The movie is now showing in other front range Colorado theaters, including those in Boulder and Colorado Springs.)
Despite most critics’ ardent praise, we caution: The Squid and the Whale is clearly not a movie for all adults and certainly not a movie for most children. The parents’ past transgressions and present misplaced solace in promiscuous relationships is thrown in the faces of their adolescent and pre-adolescent sons. The vulgarity of their sexually focused conversations and behaviors is at times shocking.
If you can look beyond that, the movie is an authentic and honest chronicle of one all-too-human family. It poignantly, even brutally, reminds us of divorce’s fierce power to shake the sometimes fragile moorings and often taken-for-granted refuge of family.
Set in Brooklyn’s Park Slope in 1986, The Squid and the Whale tells the story of an academic dad in career crisis and a boundaryless mom suddenly finding her stride in the writing world. Both parents’ self-absorption as they separate and divorce leaves sixteen-year-old Walt and twelve-year-old Frank in utter turmoil as they wrestle with their own coming-of-age issues.
Squid’s thematic subjects are not novel; among these are:
- divorce brings up our greatest insecurities; shame and humiliation drive normally grounded adults to bizarre, and sometimes aggressive behaviors;
- children intuitively grasp or actively seek out the details of their parents’ vulnerabilities and the details of their relational failings;
- children choose sides -- sometimes if only to prop up the most wounded of their parents -- but their choices are usually fickle and short-lived and never free from conflict; “being caught in the middle” always requires enormous sometimes overwhelming coping resources of them; and
- children mimic their parents’ misconduct, especially in times of stress, often accelerating behaviors and choices hard to manage as adults and overwhelming for them as children.
On our main website’s Family Resources Parenting After Divorce section, we summarize what contemporary parenting research tells us “works.” Overall – we write there – the children who do best after divorce and separation are those, whose parents
1. listen to their children and nurture an independent and empathic relationship with each of them;
2. fully support their children’s relationships with the other parent (making them feel loved and wanted in both homes);
3. develop positive strategies for setting limits and imposing appropriate discipline;
4. continue to hold reasonably high expectations for their children, regardless of trying circumstances; and
5. shield their children from their parental disagreements and resentments.
Above all else, The Squid and the Whale is a vivid canvas painting the landscape of parents who wholly disregard each of these prescriptives for healthy co-parenting after divorce.
Los Angeles Times movie critic Kenneth Turan is surely right that The Squid and the Whale is “acutely observed and faultlessly acted,” and a movie that “will make you laugh because you can’t bear to cry.” His judgment that the movie will “break your heart and heal it again” resonates less convincingly. Ninety minutes of Baumbaugh’s craft left my heart far from resting comfortably. Instead, The Squid and the Whale left me marveling at how healing ever arrives in the divorce odyssey (as convinced that I am, it generally does), and how children ever find the resources and resilience to recover from the wounds their divorcing parents’ inflict (as certain that I am, they often do).
Highly recommended for divorcing or separated parents, with reservations for those with sensibilities as noted.
See NPR's initial review with streaming audio and followup article with streaming video movie out-takes, an in-depth radio interview with the director Noah Baumbach and Apple's site for the official movie trailer (in QuickTime format).