Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Squid and The Whale

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It didn't hit me when, after seventeen hours of mostly calm and gentle labor, my baby, the child I was thinking of as Charlotte (or maybe Josephine), burst out with a splash, my waters breaking with the head's emergence. I heard my doula exclaim, "Look at him!"

It didn't hit me when Ben came to visit us in the hospital the next morning. I couldn't take my eyes off my first born, so suddenly grown-up next to his baby brother, so proud in the button-down shirt Tony had chosen for the occasion. Ben didn't even glance my way; he went straight for the plastic terrarium and hovered his hand over Elijah's soft head, unsure about touching this unfamiliar creature.

It didn't even hit me the day I was changing Eli's diaper on the bathroom floor while Ben was sitting on the toilet, and Eli took advantage of the diaperless moment to shoot a pale fountain in the air, and Ben started laughing so hard he missed the bowl and oh, it all hit me. But it didn't hit me.

It didn't hit me until Tony and I went to see The Squid and The Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005), several weeks after Eli's birth. Watching the film's mom talking to her boys, calling one Pickle and the other one Chicken, I leaned over to Tony and whispered, "Hey! I'm the mother of sons." And Tony gave me a look that said, "Well, duh!" and ate another piece of popcorn.

I went home and wrote in my journal, "My boys. I'd been feeling ok about having 2 boys till out of the blue. . . a wave of real joy about it hit me. My two boys. Lucky me."

It's a surprising reaction to this squirm-inducing film, I suppose. After all, the film's boys, reacting to the end of their parents' marriage, couldn't be more awkward or prickly. Frank (Owen Kline) is a nine- or ten-year-old who goes from innocently stuffing cashews up his nose to cracking cans of beer and spreading his semen on his classmates' lockers. His brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), a high schooler who idolizes his novelist-father, makes a play for one of his dad's writing students and plagiarizes a Pink Floyd song for the school talent show, explaining coolly, "I felt that I could have [written the song], so the fact that it was already written was kind of a technicality."

Walt and Frank's parents, Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard (Jeff Daniels), are so wrapped up in the morass of feelings -- guilt, jealousy, weariness, spite -- that accompany her decision to divorce, they inadvertently treat their sons as accomplices. They manipulate them into taking sides, demand the kind of loyalty they're unable to promise themselves, and share inappropriately detailed stories of past and present affairs. When Walt objects to hearing about Joan's stockroom tryst -- he's only just learning how to kiss a girl, after all -- she acknowledges her mistake and apologizes lamely, "I know, Chicken, it's something I do; it's a bad habit."

Bernard was once a promising young writer; now he's a bitter writing teacher with a chip on his shoulder as big as a stack of the "minor novels" he so frequently disparages. With his career on the wane and his wife's on the rise (she's got a contract with Knopf for her novel, and an excerpt running in The New Yorker), he's reduced to firing his agent for bad-mouthing the Knicks, to trying to seduce one of his students, and to offering his wife edits, which she politely rejects.

Oh, it's not an enviable family. And yet, despite the characters' stilted, often misguided attempts at open communication and their frequently bad behavior toward each other, the film inspires surprisingly tender feelings toward them all. Jeff Daniels infuses the stereotype of the skirt-chasing English professor with real humanity; he's arrogant, it's true, but he's often right (why do we make high schoolers read a great novelist's lesser work, anyway?!), and more importantly, he wants to care for his sons. He's pathetically proud of the dinner he cooks for them -- veal cutlets that detour onto the kitchen floor before hitting the plate, accompanied by long, pale carrots, their tops only partially trimmed.

Meanwhile, Laura Linney's Joan is pale and unglamorous, the very portrait of the weary mother-writer. She's so surprised to find herself with this unexpected power -- as wife, mother, and writer -- over her husband, that she doesn't know whether to laugh or cry when Bernard asks her how he can salvage their marriage. She doesn't want marriage anymore, but she doesn't apologize for what she does want: her home; her books; and most of all her time (with her kids; with her typewriter; with her lover), which she takes -- not greedily, just matter-of-factly -- whenever she can.

But mostly, of course, it's those boys -- Walt and Frank; Chicken and Pickle -- with their too-grown-up names and their too-babyish nicknames, that get to me. They are skinny and pale, and I want to brush the hair out of their eyes. Walt is obnoxious, sure, and he wears his father's arrogance like an ill-fitting jacket; he bluffs his way through conversations about movies and books, parroting his father's opinions without troubling to acquaint himself with the work himself (he doesn't get why a classmate laughs when he calls The Metamorphosis "Kafkaesque.") But when Walt overhears his parents arguing, he stands listening for a moment, so delicate in just a white t-shirt and socks, then falls gently to the floor, deflated, and curls up in the fetal position. His little brother Frank is buffeted between his parents, a young boy still so uncritically attached to his mom that he insists on a resemblance between them; but when she points out gently that he has his dad's features, he distances himself by insisting then that she's ugly.

The film emphasizes the family's vulnerable gawkiness by holding shots a beat or several too long -- we may want to look away, but the camera never does. And so as Bernard stares at his wife's bookshelves, searching for some sign of himself in his books on her shelf; as Joan and Walt stare at each other, shocked at how far apart they've grown; as Frank stares at himself in the mirror, a scrawny boy trying hard to see his mother in his own face, we come to see them all a little more generously, a little more sympathetically. They come to see each other a little more honestly, and that's a step in the right direction.

I left the movie that night eager to return to my young and still relatively uncomplicated boys. But the glimpse of what my future might hold -- I'm sure I'll have some gawky adolescents -- made me feel more protective of my little guys, and committed to looking for the sweet boys in them when they're at their pubescent worst. I think I'll remember this movie when none of us is quite so pretty anymore, and on days when we're not behaving so nicely. Because although The Squid and The Whale doesn't make any big claims at the end, doesn't make any grand gestures of reconciliation or reparation, it offers some promising glimmers that people can survive, and even learn from, a family's inevitable growing pains.


Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.


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Another beautiful column...about yet another movie I otherwise probably would never have heard of! I'm not quite ready for gawky adolescence myself...but at least we have a few more years to go. :)
Carolyn, You have opened a new world of video to me through your column! This particular review spoke to me because I have two (now grown) sons. Your wise committment to see the "sweet boys" in your sons as they age reminds me of a particularly trying time with our youngest during his adolescent years. I felt such anger towards him and the poor choices he continually made that I became afraid I didn't love him anymore. Then one day I came across a picture of him at age five. As I looked at his sweet face and remembered the joy of the moment captured on film, I realized my fear was silly. Still, I kept that picture in my Bible for many months to remind me he was still my "sweet boy." Thank you for evoking that memory through your words!
I saw this movie a few months ago and was a bit perplexed by its over-the-top awkwardness. Thanks for giving me a new perspective on it.
I saw a review for this movie and decided I would never willingly see this movie. As a writer, the wife of a writer, and the mother of two boys, I think I also, maybe unconsciously, didn't want to hear about any of it: the angry father, the mother on the verge of a literary success, the disintegrating marriage, the gawky adolescents caught in the middle. It's all a little too close to the bone. But as usual, C, you have made even this unappealing movie sound worthwhile. And while we're on the subject, what is with that title?
Yet another one of Caroline's reviews of films I have not yet seen and now want to -- not least of all because I too have two boys. But also, and perhaps more importantly, because her review gets so immediately and directly at those soul-pinching moments that are part of the reason why we (OK, me) go to movies in the first place -- the unflinching, too-long look at a gawky and heart-breakingly fragile boy in a white t-shirt and socks, the perfectly captured approach-avoidance dance that is the stuff of family intimacy and family dysfunction. Thanks, Caroline, for another review whose immediacy and insight allows those of us who haven't been to the movies lately to live vicariously through your eyes!
I coaxed my daughter into seeing this film with me when it first came out. I liked it's emotional intelligence, even though it was a painful reminder of my own separation and divorce. I wanted to scream at the characters, which only meant the acting was good. Maggie hissed when we emerged from the theater, found the movie too depressing, yet had to admit it was well done. I sensed it touched a spot in her she wanted to forget. Thank you, as always Caroline, for your wonderfully insightful column.
Caroline, this movie really did make me squirm, and you have done an amazing job here of turning straw into gold. I never would have thought that movie could evoke such tender emotions, but now looking back, I see what you saw, and it's quite moving. Thank you for giving me a new perspective. This essay is really beautiful, and moving.
You know, I saw this movie and thought only of the mother, mostly because my only son is disabled and probably (we hope?!) won't be masturbating on the school room wall and downing beers at 10 in the morning. On the other hand, maybe he will? At any rate, thank you for showing me a very different side of the film. It's a lovely thing to contemplate, what it's like to see the real life of teenage boys, and the mother who needs them.
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