Friday, April 14, 2006

From the Treadmill: The Squid and the Whale

As every parent knows, there are a countless number of books offering advice on how best to raise our children. The books run the gambit from the so-obvious-I-demand-my-money-back, to the utterly ridiculous. Towards the latter end of this range are books whose theses are that children should be treated as miniature adults. Baby talk is eschewed, organic dishes are favored, and parent/child differences are settled through impartial deliberation. But most importantly, children are taught to respect their parents. This doesn’t come in the form of obedience, that would be oppressive, but rather in recognizing the importance of respecting what mommy and daddy are feeling. Like a friend would, or a therapist. The obvious downside to this egalitarian approach to the child enhancing is in full, graphic display in this week’s movie review: The Squid and the Whale.

Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels)** is a college professor who has grown bitter about the fading acclaim from his past literary achievements. Joan (Laura Linney) is his second or third wife, depending on how you define a marriage, and is just starting to receive attention for her writing, a situation that further exasperates Bernard’s wounded psyche and leads to their estrangement early in the film.

The fruit of their tumultuous relationship and intense self-involvement are two sons: Walt (Jesse Eisenberg)*** age 16 and Frank (Owen Kline) age 12. Both emulate their parents by both suppressing their emotions and striking out in an almost vicious verbal manner. The emotional turmoil that arrests the boys' development is the centerpiece of the film. And we know how they get that way.

Bernard and Joan treat their boys as adults, and I suspect they always have. They don’t employ this method of child rearing because they believe it is a more respectful to their children or because it will better prepare them for the world that awaits them. Rather, they do it because it is easier to just go on being their selfish selves than it is to take on the roles of responsible parents. That they place their own needs above the needs of their children is best evidenced in the living arrangements they put in place after they separate. The parents alternate custody on a day-by-day basis, the result being that the kids never return after school to the same house they left that morning.

There are other disturbing instances that result from this open form of parenting. Joan feels guilty for not being more honest with her sons about her sexual affairs after Walt finds out that she slept with the father of one of his friends. She promises to be more forthcoming in the future. When Walt finds his first love, his father advises him to the play the field lest he be disappointed later in life when he looks back on a rather limited slate of sexual conquests.

The parents are largely oblivious to the damaged adolescents they’ve created, especially Bernard. When Frank is caught committing a rather disturbing and unusual act of a sexual nature in school, Bernard asks the administrator if some other students might be involved, as if it could be written off as just some crazy fad the kids have gotten into.

In Roger Ebert’s review of this film, he talks about how wonderful it would be to be raised by two serious writers in a house where Dickens is a common topic of dinner conversation. At the point in their life when we meet the two sons, it surely could be enriching. But Ebert fails to realize that kids often have less scholarly interests, ones that Bernard would never deign to take interest in. We can see the effects of these deep-minded discussions on brains still better suited for less mature matter. Walt appropriates by rote his father’s condescending criticism of books without ever having read them. Young Frank adopts the infamous lifestyle of the writer by drinking and swearing to excess, behavior that his parents don’t notice (the drinking) or don’t find unsuitable (intense verbal assaults of the bluest kind.)

At this point I should say that I really did enjoy this movie. It tells an interesting story and it is extremely well written and acted. While the parents certainly weren’t honorable, it was enjoyable observing them in a way that a sociologist might. It was even quite funny. Bernard’s McEnroe-like tantrums while competing with Frank at ping pong were especially entertaining.

There was one minor plot point that bothered me. Walt plays for his parents a song that he wrote. “Hey you,” he sings, “don’t tell me there’s no hope at all.” Later, he wins first prize in the school talent show with his original composition. Eventually, someone discovers that he cribbed the song from that obscure art-rock band, Pink Floyd. I can believe that “The Wall” didn’t make its way into his parent’s record collections and so they fell for Walt’s deception. But in an entire assembly of high school students, no one stood and yelled “fraud”?

That’s just a minor quibble, however. I do recommend this film, although those of you who prefer more staid slices of life in your evening’s entertainment might find it a bit disturbing. It is definitely worthy of repeat viewings, so maybe it will make its way to the treadmill soon.

*Full disclosure: this movie was reviewed from a sofa and not from the treadmill (aka elliptical trainer.) My wife bought me season two of Arrested Development on DVD so I’m currently spending my thrice weekly cardio workouts with the Bluth family.

**Reviews for Daniels’ performance were almost unanimous in their praise, except for the SJ-R’s Nick Rogers who described it as “one note.” You decide.

***Eisenbath turns in another fine performance. He was great in the film Roger Dodger. If you have the means, I highly recommend that you check it out.

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