Noah Baumbach's dark, self-lacerating The Squid and the Whale is an autobiographical story about the teenaged son of two novelists, who starts out as the clone of his intellectually tyrannical father, and slowly comes to realize that maybe it's not great to be the kind of person who mocks people for liking A Tale of Two Cities (which he's never read) because it's not as good as Great Expectations (which he's also never read).

I say it's autobiographical because everyone tells me it is, but I think I could have figured it out anyway - the story is too sharply observed to be fiction, and it clearly matters a lot to its writer/director. It's as intimate as anything I've seen this year, yet totally free from nostalgia: Baumbach doesn't try to make his alter ego sympathetic, but plays him for the monstrously self-centered asshole he himself might well have been.

But despite that, it's impossible not to feel sympathy. Really, I felt sympathy for everyone: the Noah-surrogate Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), his sexually psychotic 10-year old brother Frank (Owen Kline), and their patient, but desperately angry mother Joan (Laura Linney, as wonderful as ever). I even felt a twinge and there for Bernard, Walt's beast of a father, and for that I credit Jeff Daniels for bringing a great deal to a very well-written character.

The story is about intelligent people doing very stupid things, and occasionally learning from other's mistakes. But it doesn't wrap everything up at the end, and it doesn't make things easy for the viewer. The title has an explanation that implies a lot; yet there's a lot that has to be puzzled out even after that. It's not an "easy" film, although it doesn't look like it's holding anything back.

It has a scant 80 minute run time, which seems miserly, but it requires no more. Baumbach avoids the mistake of assuming that film has to be a certain length, instead following a much more basic rule: it needs to be as long as the story requires. Nothing is wasted, and nothing is wanting.

It's no surprise that Wes Anderson snagged Baumbach for his writing partner; The Squid and the Whale plays like the movie The Royal Tenenbaums feared and wanted to be before it bumped into the shoals of preciousness that later scuttled Anderson and Baumbach's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. There's nothing precious about The Squid and the Whale. It does not want to be liked. It's good enough that it doesn't have to be.