Only writer-director Noah Baumbach and his immediate circle know how much of The Squid and the Whale is autobiographical, but he's transformed the trauma of his parents' 1980s divorce into a funny, poignant and layered portrait of a literary family in freefall. The fourth feature from the talented creator of the comedies Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy is his most substantial to date, fortified by excellent performances by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as the estranged parents and Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline as their shell-shocked young sons.

Lead characters Bernard and Joan Berkman are loosely based on the director's parents: Jonathan Baumbach, a noted novelist, and Georgia Brown, onetime film critic for The Village Voice. Bernard, a college professor in career decline, is threatened by the nascent success of his wife, who's just landed a book deal, and soon they're announcing to their boys, 16-year-old Walt and 12-year-old Frank, that they've decided to separate. Bernard moves out of their Park Slope, Brooklyn home and finds a shabby, unfurnished place in the less fashionable neighborhood on the opposite side of Prospect Park. The boys are shuttled back and forth between the two homes, with Walt resenting his mother for her apparent betrayal of his idolized father, and Frank feeling a greater bond with the more nurturing Joan. Their image of their parents becomes cloudier when Bernard rents a room to a young female student (Anna Paquin) and initiates an affair, while Joan is caught having a fling with the boys' tennis coach (William Baldwin), a shaggy-haired slacker who greets everyone with "Hey, brother!" Feeling adrift, Frank expresses his budding sexual awareness with a dementedly antisocial compulsion, while Walt must deal with both his anger at his mother and his disillusionment with his dad.

Baumbach's script is less plot-driven than a series of vignettes detailing the changing dynamics of four complicated people-refreshingly, meaning both adults and children. Bernard is the least sympathetic of the bunch, a brilliant blowhard who can't resist dropping names like Mailer and Plimpton, dissing Dickens, and making pronouncements like "Elmore Leonard is the filet of the pulp writers." In perhaps his best film performance, Daniels-here bearded and scruffy-is fully persuasive as an accomplished writer whose glory days are behind him but whose pride doesn't allow him to admit it. We see the daunting qualities that inspire awe in his older son, but the flip side of that is an egoism that makes him far from ideal as a parent. (He inscribes a book to his son with "Best wishes," then "Dad" in parentheses.) Linney is solid as ever as Joan, an equally sharp intellect relieved to be emerging from her husband's shadow but pained by her liberation's effect on her highly vulnerable boys. Eisenberg, so good opposite Campbell Scott in Roger Dodger, confirms his precocious talent with his soulful comic anguish as Walt, who's so eager to prove his own literary talents he pretends the Pink Floyd song "Hey You" is his own composition, even after performing it at a school assembly. Owen Kline, son of the actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, more than holds his own among the demanding lead quartet, while William Baldwin is very amusing in the role of the laid-back, slightly seedy tennis hunk.

Filmed in super-16 on location in Brooklyn, the movie has an appealingly grainy look that enhances its '80s New York period milieu. Best of all, the picture doesn't aim for a forced happy ending; it concludes at the squid-and-whale diorama at the American Museum of Natural History, where the eternal battle of these formidable sea creatures serves as Baumbach's metaphor for parental conflicts that may never be resolved.

-Kevin Lally