To begin with an admittedly eyebrow-testing proposition: Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale belongs in the “body horror” genre as surely as anything by David Cronenberg. For Baumbach, family is defined as the people who are witness to the humiliating moments stricken from your public persona, and so this extraordinarily close-quartered movie is coated with the embarrassing secretions of the polished, published, and articulate. At the family meeting where 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) already know their parents are going to announce their divorce, the moment is drawn out agonizingly: father Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and the boys waiting on the couch for mother Joan (Laura Linney) to come out of the bathroom, which she does, announced by a flush and greeted with crinkled noses. “Mom!” “Sorry.”
Family members, especially in the city, live on top of each other. One major practical consequence of this is that, if you’re just learning how to masturbate, you’re not doing so nearly as privately as you think. The Squid and the Whale’s frankest plotline concerns the inevitable discovery of Frank’s improvised, wildly disconcerting relationship to his own splooge, and this engagement with the body at its most mortifying is one of the places where the American independent film has run with the ball handed off to it by the middlebrow studio drama of previous decades. Compare it with another movie in which a would-be man-of-the-house teen and his kid brother adjust to single parenting in an unfamiliar urban setting: Paul Brickman’s Risky Business follow-up Men Don’t Leave, which Warner Brothers released in 1990, fifteen years before Sony and Samuel Goldwyn bought Squid out of Sundance. Read Mark Asch’s contribution to Reverse Shot’s Stuck in the Middle symposium.