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The makers of almost any independent film dream of winning an award at the Sundance Festival. "The Squid and the Whale" won two. It's now in theaters, and Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan says it deserves both awards.

KENNETH TURAN reporting:

"The Squid and the Whale" has the power to break your heart and heal it again. It's acutely observed, faultlessly active, overflowing with emotion and honesty. It will make you laugh because you can't bear to cry. The film won both Sundance's directing and screenwriting awards for filmmaker Noah Baumbach. "Squid's" accomplishment is especially remarkable because it deals with familiar, coming-of-age material, usually the elephant graveyard of Sundance-style cinema. But if you're gifted enough and you have a superlative cast, top-lined by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, your story can belong to everyone. "The Squid and the Whale" is a model of what independent filmmaking can achieve, even on a hectic 23-day shooting schedule and a modest $1.5 million budget.

(Soundbite of "The Squid and the Whale")

Mr. JEFF DANIELS: (As Bernard Berman) Mom and I are going--we're going to separate.

Ms. LAURA LINNEY: (As Joan Berkman) You're not going to be leaving either of us.

Mr. DANIELS: (As Berman) We're going to have joint custody. Frank, it's OK. I've got an elegant new house across the park.

OWEN KLINE: (As Frank) Across the park?

Ms. LINNEY: (As Berkman) And we'll both see you equally.

Mr. JESSE EISENBERG: (As Walt) How will that work?

Mr. DANIELS: (As Berman) We're splitting up the week, alternating days.

Mr. EISENBERG: (As Walt) So how you split evenly with seven days?

Mr. DANIELS: (As Berman) Oh, I've got you Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday and every other Thursday.

Ms. LINNEY: (As Berkman) That was your father's idea.

Mr. EISENBERG: (As Walt) What about the cat?

Ms. LINNEY: (As Berkman) The cat?

Mr. DANIELS: (As Berman) We didn't discuss the cat.

TURAN: With a title whose meaning and resonance becomes clear only at the close, "The Squid and the Whale" is as perceptive as it is personal. Writer/director Baumbach has what might be called perfect emotional pitch, a sensitivity to nuances within character. It's his ability to capture the intricacies of troubled relationships that reminds us of Tolstoy's epigram that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

This film's family, parents and sons, is introduced playing tennis in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn in 1986. In the ways casual sports contests have of revealing character, it's obvious before the match is over that the marriage is finished. The pain of that dissolution will savage everyone's lives, destroying emotional moorings with indiscriminate ferocity.

(Soundbite of "The Squid and the Whale")

Mr. DANIELS: (As Berman) My father told me you called him.

Ms. LINNEY: (As Berkman) I did, yeah.

Mr. DANIELS: (As Berman) He said you were upset.

Ms. LINNEY: (As Berkman) Yeah, I wanted to--I like him. You know that. I just wanted to say--I don't know. I just wanted to say hello.

Mr. DANIELS: (As Berman) He called me right after. He said, `Bernie, I think you can save your marriage.' And I told him I didn't think there was anything else I could do.

TURAN: Gradually, horrifyingly, somehow comically, these four people move into the slow-motion nightmare that is divorce. It's a maelstrom that draws other people, like the boys' hunky tennis instructor, played by William Baldwin, and the father's sexy student, played by Anna Paquin, into the chaos. As with any storm, the question is who will survive and at what price.

"The Squid and the Whale" was shot in Super 16mm, a film stock chosen by the director partly as a tribute to the filmmakers he loves who've used it: the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee. If this marvelous film is any indication, Noah Baumbach is more than ready to take his place in their company.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews films for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

And you've been listening to Ken on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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