Writer/director Noah Baumbach takes a major step forward as a filmmaker with The Squid and the Whale. Perhaps it's the combination of revelatory autobiographical content and producer Wes Anderson's formal influence, but this is Baumbach's most emotionally potent and visually coherent film to date. While Baumbach's primary focus remains on his characters -- their personality quirks including what might be called "comfort phrases," (Ivan's use of "my brother" as punctuation, Joan [Laura Linney] calling her children "Pickle" and "Chicken," and Bernard's [Jeff Daniels] use of "filet," as in "Leonard is the filet of the crime genre," are good examples) -- his visuals, including a trip across Prospect Park by subway (while the family takes the car) work strongly in support of his narrative. Baumbach's ubiquitous references to other films, distractingly prominent in his earlier work, are integrated seamlessly into The Squid and the Whale. While his other films certainly had their tender, sincere moments, Baumbach occasionally seemed to strain to get laughs, or to ingratiate the audience to his oddball characters. He moves beyond that here. His blunt rendering of Frank's (the amazing young Owen Kline) disturbed sexual reaction to his parents' split, and Walt's (Jesse Eisenberg as a stand-in for the young Baumbach) pretentious adoption of his father's air of intellectualism feel painfully true to life, beyond their entertainment value. As piercing and witty as Baumbach's script is, it couldn't work without a superb cast. These are deeply flawed people struggling through a crisis, unable to see beyond their own narrow view. Baumbach captures the pain and confusion that lurk beneath their anger and bluster. The Squid and the Whale is marked by a sometimes painful emotional honesty that lends even the goofiest characters (e.g. Ivan) their dignity and humanity.