Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Squid and the Whale

Go To

"Me and Mom versus you and Dad."
Frank, in the film's opening linenote 

The Squid and the Whale is a 2005 American independent comedy-drama film written and directed by Noah Baumbach and co-produced by Wes Anderson. The film marked the second collaboration between the two following Baumbach co-writing Anderson's then-latest film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It stars Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, and Owen Kline, with Anna Paquin and William Baldwin in supporting roles. The film was shot on Super 16mm and mostly on handheld, creating its distinct lo-fi look.

The film revolves around a family in mid-1980s Brooklyn — the Berkmans, composed of established writer father Bernard (Daniels), up-and-coming writer mother Joan (Linney), and sons Walt (Eisenberg) and Frank (Kline). Based primarily on events in Baumbach's own adolescence, the center of the story is the parents' gradual divorce, and how this manifests in the family members' connections and personal lives.

Primarily off the strength of its universally acclaimed screenplay, the film won several awards at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and collected Baumbach's first big-name nominations for Independent Spirit Awards, Golden Globes, and an Academy Award.

Tropes associated with this film:

  • Affectionate Nickname: Joan calls Frank "pickle" and Walt "chicken."
  • Broken Pedestal: For much of the film, Walt idolizes his father and completely takes his side in the divorce, often refusing to spend time at his mother's house. Towards the end, he has a change of heart after a therapy session causes him to realize his father was never around when he was a kid, and he finds his father putting the moves on Lili, whom he had a crush on.
  • Central Theme: The impact parents' divorce has on their children.
  • Children Are Innocent: Very much subverted with Frank, a pubescent child who swears a lot and has a keen knowledge and interest in all things sexual.
  • Divorce Assets Conflict: A very minor and petty one. Bernard and Joan have disputes about whose books are whose; Joan stashes her books under Frank's bed in the dead of night to keep Bernard from taking them when he moves out, while Bernard repeatedly claims that Joan has stolen his books.
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Berkmans are all screwed up in some way. The parents are self-obsessed, arrogant, and unfaithful toward one another, leading to their divorce. The children consist of a judgmental, narcissistic teenager and an alcoholic, sex-crazed prepubescent.
  • Empty Fridge, Empty Life: Lili comments how empty Bernard's fridge is, which highlights how Bernard's angst about his divorce is keeping him from paying attention to his kids, as well as his struggles keeping house without his wife.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Somewhere in between. Joan repeatedly cheated on her husband while they were married, which Walt finds unforgivable, and feels that she abandoned her family for this. Walt and Bernard imply she cheated because her husband's career became less successful. Over the course of the movie, it's revealed that Bernard is also a self-centered jerk and neglectful husband who contemplated cheating on his wife as well (though he makes pains to point out he didn't go through with it), making her somewhat more sympathetic although still perhaps not justified.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Or in this movie's case, just parents. Both of the parents are arrogant and self-centered who think they care about their kids but really just want to be seen as the better person. They are quite neglectful of their kids usually making Walt need to be the one to look after his little brother Frank.
  • Jerkass: Most of the characters, especially Bernard and Joan, are pretty terrible.
    • Bernard especially as he is very self-centered and arrogant.
    • Joan has still made an occasional attempt to be a part of their families lives but is still unfaithful and neglectful.
    • Walt idealizes his father and is similarly smug and self-absorbed. He passes off a Pink Floyd song as his own, constantly belittles his girlfriend Sophie, and plans to cheat on her. But after the consequences to these actions catch up with him, he softens up a little.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Walt, perhaps. He makes a lot of authoritative comments about literature, but a lot of it might just come from his father. He belittles Sophie for loving a lesser-known F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, claiming Gatsby is superior, but his teacher later claims that Walt never read The Great Gatsby based on his course work. Similarly, when Sophie talks to him about The Metamorphosis, she has substantial thoughts about it while Walt just condescendingly calls it "Kafkaesque".
  • Lonely Bachelor Pad: While the old family house Joan lives in is richly decorated and well-cared for, Bernard's house is run-down, has little furniture and food, and each room is decorated by a single poster. This is highlighted when they first move in. Frank's room is adorned with a poster of a tennis player he hates, and a very small lefty desk (Frank isn't left-handed), much to his displeasure.
  • Lust Object: Both Bernard and Walt semi-openly lust after Lili, who's in between their ages. Walt attempts to make a move on her but clumsily gives her a bloody nose instead, while at the end of the movie Bernard makes the move, which she doesn't seem happy about.
  • Male Gaze: After Bernard welcomes Lili into his house and takes her up the stairs, Walt trails behind her and immediately zones in on her butt, of which we then see a POV closeup in motion.
  • Never Trust a Title: The title sounds more like that of a cheesy Syfy Channel Original Movie than a heartfelt drama.
  • Parental Neglect: Bernard and Joan are pretty crappy parents. However, at least Joan kind of made an attempt. It turns out that Bernard didn't really contribute much to his children's lives. Both parents are apathetic about Walt's plagiarism and troubles in school. Most notably, at one point, both parents leave the pre-teen Frank at home by himself for three days, where he proceeds to get alcohol poisoning.
  • Parents as People: Joan and Bernard aren't the most attentive parents because they're going through a lot in their own lives, which the film gives attention to. Joan has an active dating life, and is a rising literary star, while Bernard is struggling with his writing career and seems to be having a mid-life crisis of identity.
  • Plagiarism in Fiction: Walt tries to pass off Pink Floyd's "Hey You" as an original song he wrote for the school talent show. To make him feel better, Lili later admits she'd try passing off Lou Reed lyrics as original poetry in school, but she'd always get caught. A little while later, Walt suffers the same fate.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Everyone in the film swears quite a lot, but especially Frank, whose constant F-bombs stand out particularly due to his age.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Pretty cynical throughout the movie.
  • Slut-Shaming: Walt is rather judgmental about his girlfriend's sexuality. He angrily demands information, which he then judges her for, about giving her previous boyfriend a handjob. Later, he gets upset when she expresses interest in having sex with him because she's too aggressive. It's very hypocritical on his part considering he's thinking about cheating on her with Lili and all the authority figures in his life are telling him he should sleep around.
  • Speed Sex: Walt orgasms within 30 seconds of Sophie giving him a handjob, leading to some awkwardness afterward.
  • Teacher/Parent Romance: Joan starts dating Frank's tennis coach, which makes things very awkward for the family.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: Bernard lusts after Lili, a student in the college class he teaches who writes "very racy" stories. She's substantially younger with him, and, in what would certainly be an HR violation today, moves in with him after she gets evicted. While she expresses some interest in him, when he eventually makes a pass at her it doesn't appear to be consensual.
  • Too Much Information: Whenever Walt learns anything about his mother's love life, either directly from her or from Frank, he gets more than he wants to hear.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: After the divorce, Frank develops a drinking habit, which is quite troubling considering he's still young enough to cry regularly. Left alone at home, he drinks enough whiskey to make himself puke.
  • Writers Are Writers: Bernard was once a promising novelist whose career has hit a decline, while Joan has been publishing her work to newfound acclaim.
  • Writers Suck: Both Bernard and Joan are writers and are self-involved in their own ways.