I remember High school, and if I think back far enough, I can remember my childhood….vaguely. I remember riding a pony at the fair, wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers costume to my 2nd grade class and a trip on the BART subway to San Francisco for some outstanding achievement in elementary school (perfect attendance). I remember I had goals. I wanted to play professional basketball, but by the time high school hit, I accepted that this may mean professional European basketball (later it meant playing in junior college). I wanted to go to school back East and live like Henry Miller. I wanted to convince a woman to…well you get the picture (it eventually happened, but my memory gets fuzzy). And then suddenly, I was an adult with different goals and a different personality and everything was different. My Dad used to say that you have eighteen years to be a kid and the rest of your life to be an adult. It never made sense until I was eighteen. And I was lucky. There are kids who grow up before their time or watch their parents grow up with them. Such is the case for Walt.
Walt worships his father, the narcissistic Bernard played to perfection by Jeff Daniels. He wants so badly to believe everything his father says, heeding his advice on women, books and life. Walt projects his fathers unearned confidence with even less credentials, posing as an intellectual to attract Sophie, but knowing nothing of the literary figures he pretends to worship. Walt’s entire life is a pose; he has no idea what he is or what he wants to be, and with his father constantly in his ear, he won’t be able to figure it out.
Walt might be perfectly happy with Sophie, but he isn’t sure. He is constantly evaluating the situation, taking it in from afar, never living the experience. He has to know exactly what it means to be with Sophie. How will other people see him? How will his father see him? It doesn’t help that Bernard dodges the question of her suitability by saying that he thinks it’s important for a young man to experience as much as possible. Walt cannot possibly be happy when there is so much out there for him, there are so many limitless possibilities and he, like his father, is full of untapped potential. Walt’s triumphant performance of “Hey You” swells his ego; he unwittingly breaks things off with Sophie in anticipation of the better catch: Lili, the rising literary star and grad student living in his father’s house. Walt, fresh from shunning Sophie, finds himself in Lili’s room and unable to control his wandering eye. The awkward interaction ends with a bloody nose for Lizzie and a frustrated Walt retreating to his bedroom only to watch his father try with the same girl.
His parents soon find out that Walt ripped off a Pink Floyd song and that the seemingly studious Walt has not been doing his work. Adopting Bernard’s ability to blame everyone but himself, Walt reasons that he “could have written” the Roger Waters ballad. Like Bernard, he is setting himself up for a life of could haves, but something changes Walt. The Squid and the Whale.
You can stare at something for a long time before you realize what it is. Walt, like everyone else, has been staring at his life for seventeen years before he realizes what it actually is, not how he perceives it to be. It takes a run-in with a psychiatrist, the cathartic release of seeing his father fondling a college student and the words of his mother for him to realize what he is. Or at the very least what he is not. When Walt tells his mom, “That’s not how I see myself” she simply replies, “that’s how it is.” It didn’t matter what illusion he was under. What illusion any of us are under. For so many years he had accepted, at face value, all of his father’s observations. From thoughts on Dickens and Fitzgerald to ideas about women to problems with his mother and their relationship. Like the exhibit at the natural history museum, Walt had been scared to look at the beasts for what they actually were. It is a scary moment in life when you finally realize that those two, towering despots are only people. Their authority and assurance created by smoke and mirrors. It can be a refreshing experience or a jarring experience, particularly in adolescence.
Freed from his father’s mind control, Walt is free to experience the world and make his own decisions. He can finally see Bernard as he is, selfish and self-important, incapable of love because he hates himself and his station in life. Walt can empathize with his mother, who is no saint, but deserves more from life than having to nurture a damaged ego. Joan’s need to date a “philistine” is obvious; she needs a break from the tortured artistic soul that never got its recognition.
The Squid and the Whale captures that shift from boyhood to manhood, from innocence to reason. In this case the transformation was accelerated by parents still trapped in perpetual adolescence. I looked up Noah Baumbach’s other films and discovered an old IFC favorite of mine, from my teenage days of looking for free nudity, Mr. Jealousy. Mr Baumbach also helped pen the fantastic (Ha!) script for Fantastic Mr Fox. You can see the link between Wes Anderson and Baumbach in their understanding of the adolescent experience. The uncertainty, the identity issues, and the steadfast beliefs that will inevitably be beaten into submission by the facts of life.
Jesse Eisenberg was brilliant. I hardly recognized the kid who was disguised as a Michael Cera clone for Zombieland and probably, though I didn’t see it, Adventureland as well. Though he certainly retained the awkwardness of an unsure teenage boy that has defined Cera’s career, he traded in quirkiness for heartfelt confusion and developmental issues. Jeff Daniels turns in a great performance as Bernard. It would be criminal to not mention Frank, played by Owen Cline, who represents a new, emerging archetype that was also in Me, You and Everyone We Know. A young boy, neglected by his divorced parents lashes out in adult ways long before adulthood. Frank’s sexual deviancy and alcoholism are considerably serious issues that get very little attention from his parents. Frank is growing up quicker than he should. The illusion failed him, and he is forced to watch his mother try to find herself and his father behave like a juvenile.
The film ends before we know what happens to Walt. Before finding out if his father lives, if his mother remarries, if his brother develops a serious drinking problem. All we know is that Walt has his blinders off and can finally see. He is one step closer to knowing that he knows nothing at all and probably never will. The least you can do is hope to be happy during that time, something Bernard has never accomplished. To accomplish that feat, one must be brave. One must look at the beast that is before them, swallow the truth and their pride and try to live one day at a time.