Coming-of-age movies are easy to relate to because we've all done it. Most people have never embezzled $2 million from the mob or been chased through the woods by a homicidal maniac, but at one time or another every one of us has had to grow up (or you were supposed to, anyway). The backgrounds are as varied as snowflakes, yet any respectable coming-of-age movie should touch upon universal truths that will cause us to laugh or cry or squirm in recognition. Filmmaker Noah Baumbach's semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale incorporates the little details attendant to throwing off the shackles of youth in a way that is agonizingly honest and painfully funny, even when you're the only one giggling. It's one of the best movies of the year.
When last we heard from Baumbach, he had received a co-writing credit on Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic. Anderson co-produces Squid, which drops in on the Berkmans of Park Slope in the mid 1980s. Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard (Jeff Daniels, never better) are both writers, and together they have two smart sons, a lovely home in Brooklyn, and a badly damaged marriage in dissolution mode. 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is the elder brother and seems to be siding with his pompously bitter father, while Frank (Owen Kline) gravitates towards his more nurturing mother and the himbo tennis instructor (a surprisingly decent William Baldwin).
The Berkman boys handle their parents' turmoil differently. Walt takes up with a classmate, writes a Pink Floyd song, and begins emulating the pretentious Bernard, though both he and his dad are sweet on Lili (Anna Paquin), a college student who conveniently needs a place to live. Frank, meanwhile, begins to resent both parents and acts out in odd and gooey ways. It'd be easy to feel sorry for these confused kids, but Baumbach's deadpan script doesn't allow you the luxury of pity.
This should be the role that earns Daniels his first Oscar nomination. Bernard is a narcissistic snob even when dealing with his boys, yet we sympathize because we know he means well despite his selfish actions. And Kline --- actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates are his parents --- steals nearly every scene he's in as the troubled yet sweet little brother. I do wish they had gotten someone else for Paquin's role, however. The blatant banter between Lili and Bernard caused me to harken back a mere 10 years ago to Fly Away Home, a charming family film in which Paquin played Daniels' daughter. I know it's all pretend, but yuck.
Baumbach's own childhood inspired Squid, which takes its title from a diorama at NYC's Museum of Natural History and basically refers to fears that seemed really real as a child but in hindsight may have been unfounded. Everyone in the family is flawed, though not irreparably, and you're confident they'll get it together one day. Does any of this sound familiar?
As entertainment it's a rather distasteful concept, and even the man who would eventually produce the now-classic White Dog at first declined the job. Jon Davison was coming off the success of producing 1980's Airplane! when the suits at Paramount assigned him a script, based on a LifeMagazine piece by French writer Romain Gary, about a dog trained to attack people of color.
White Dog had been in development for some time --- early on it was to be Polanski's follow-up to Chinatown --- and once Davison actually got a look at the semi-exploitive screenplay, he says, "I was in despair." Enter screenwriter Curtis Hanson --- who would later win an Oscar for adapting LA Confidential --- and legendary director Sam Fuller, the man behind benchmarks like Pickup on South Street and The Big Red One.
Hanson had been working on a rewrite of White Dog and it was he who suggested Fuller for the director's chair. Fuller, as it turned out, had known Gary and had read the source material. Davison recalls, "I was a huge fan of Fuller and knew he couldn't help but create a powerful anti-racist statement." Hanson and Fuller kicked out a shooting script, but the controversy over White Dog raged even before the final cut was assembled.
Kristy McNichol stars as Julie, an actress who plows her vintage Mustang into a snowy pup then takes him home to recuperate. She's pleased with her fluffy friend until he begins to exhibit seemingly random signs of aggression, but it isn't until she brings him to an animal training center that she realizes her white dog is really a "white" dog, meaning he's been conditioned to assault black people.
The late, great Paul Winfield plays Keys, an animal trainer who vows to deprogram the "four-legged time bomb," and the film achieves great tension every time Keys steps into the steel cage with the dog and exposes more and more of his skin like a masochistic stripper. It becomes clear that Keys' motivation for breaking Julie's canine isn't about helping a girl and her dog but about tackling racism, even in the slightest way.
The most disturbing aspect of White Dog --- and probably the dealbreaker for the NAACP, who had consultants on the set --- is the way in which we learn that Julie's dog has been taught to hate. The attacks on African Americans, while not overtly gruesome, are nonetheless upsetting and presumably the reason for the vociferous reactions to the film's perceived bigotry, which would lead to the shelving of White Dog.
It would be years before White Dog graced an American screen, but in Europe, Davison says, "It got the best reviews you can imagine. It was hailed as a masterpiece." Sam Fuller left the United States to live in Europe, never making another film in America. Davison went on to produce hits like Robocop and Starship Troopers, and he will be at the Dryden Theatre to present the US premiere of the uncut European version of White Dog. Fittingly, it's also Fuller's personal cut.
The Squid and the Whale (R), directed by Noah Baumbach, opens Friday, December 2, at the Little Theatre. | The director's cut of White Dog (PG), directed by Samuel Fuller, will be presented by producer Jon Davison at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre on Saturday, December 3, at 8 p.m.