Apr 10, 2015

Alternative to What: "The Squid and the Whale" (2005)

Welcome to Alternative to What: a weekly column that tries to find a great alternative to driving to the multiplexes. Based on releases of that week, the selections will either be thematically related or feature recurring cast and crew. The goal is to help you better understand the diversity of cinema and hopefully find you some favorites while saving a few bucks. At worse, this column will save you money. Expect each installment to come out on Fridays, unless specified. 

The Squid and the Whale (2005)
- Alternative To -
While We're Young (2015)

One of the driving forces of independent cinema's character dramas is Noah Baumbach. With his latest While We're Young, he again tackles the subject of aging as he did in the less successful Greenberg. One of his best achievements is being able not to make conflicting plots with amazing twists, but finding humanity in the quiet moments and creating humor in the vulnerabilities. He has had a massive amount of great work over his long career that reflect his growth as a filmmaker that while not always specific in style, is always compelling. He isn't a director that comes to mind directly when considering the greats, but where his occasional collaborator Wes Anderson has gone more into a cartoonish direction, he has only gotten more personal and more interesting.
There is of course what is considered his breakout film that will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year. The Squid and the Whale is in many ways different from his latest film. Where 2015 Baumbach sees him handling existential conflicts through humor, 2005 Baumbach saw him handle these situations through more complicated means. His title is deliberate and reflects something bigger about the conflicts of a family dealing with their parents' divorce. It is a shocking and powerful full of human performances that inevitably lead Baumbach to his sole Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It is well deserved because as some would likely guess, grieving is a hard thing to pull off cinematically.
Yet here Baumbach is in top form because the story comes from a personal place. The story is set in the 80's and feels lived in because they're based on his experiences. With excellent performances by Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney and Jesse Eisenberg, the cast is able to explore the problematic lifestyle of living life when your very base of existence crumbles. It isn't easy and thankfully the film sincerely navigates the issues not by having big dramatic moments, but delving into small realizations that emphasize character and give depth to how grieving actually takes place. It doesn't always feel convenient, much like how the film plays out.

In the echelon of films about divorce, this one is special mostly because it isn't about the parents as it is with Kramer vs. Kramer. It is about the children, who are still in their youth and unable to understand complex emotions on par with their parents. Thankfully, Baumbach does an excellent job of covering the bases not only through performances, but by various moments of symbolism that reflect division not only between the parents, but also children and other various subsets. The film struggles with finding balance and instead becomes extremely relative in a hopeful and honest way. Where some would play it more comedic, this goes personal and results in something more honest.
One could argue that Baumbach hasn't quite been this personal since. His work has become more comedic and has focuses on existential conflicts that aren't as personal. Sure, there's aging (Greenberg) or friendship (Frances Ha), but both are more reliant on humor than big elaborate metaphors or twists that brought Baumbach his breakout film. This isn't a bad thing, but for those wanting more mature work from him, it creates a longing that likely won't be coming back. Thankfully, he's still got some skills and knows how to entertain confidently.
I am not sure if While We're Young will be another hit for the filmmaker. He definitely has an impressive track record and with a lot of returning players, it's hard to see this going the wrong direction. Of course, the real charm will come if he manages to make compelling characters that transcend its material. For those worried that he is too one note or is unable to appeal to a wider audience, please consider watching The Squid and the Whale to understand what happens when he is dealt with something far more personal and important to him. He knocks it out of the park and leaves an overwhelming feeling of awe.

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