Seeing the Good in 'The Whale'
Every year, I see one or two movies in theaters that feel more like therapy sessions than movies. These are films that I connect with on an emotional level, granting me new knowledge about myself and the world around me; films that I feel should be essential viewing for every living person. In Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon last year, not a single person left the theater until the credits were fully finished rolling. Just a few months ago, in Everything Everywhere All at Once, I drove home from the theater feeling uniquely positive about my life. My latest transformative experience was with Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Whale.
Based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter, The Whale tells the story of Charlie (Brendan Fraser), an isolated English teacher who is slowly dying due to his severe obesity, and his attempt to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). Although the film is mostly confined to the setting of Charlie’s apartment, it manages to explore a variety of different themes and ideas, such as forgiveness, the importance of authenticity, and religion (because it wouldn’t be a proper Darren Aronofsky movie without multiple references to the Bible).
If you’re aware of this movie’s existence, there’s a good chance it’s because of Brendan Fraser's well-deserved career resurgence. Perhaps it’s recency bias, but I don’t think I’ve been this emotionally moved by a performance since… ever? Admittedly, Fraser was not on my radar until this movie started getting some buzz, but now that he’s back in the spotlight and I’ve had the chance to hear him talk, he seems like such a wonderful person – a true beam of joy who couldn’t have been more perfect for this role. You could even draw parallels between Charlie and Fraser and how they both experienced a fall from grace due to unexpected trauma in their lives. As one lost control of his career (albeit temporarily), the other lost control of his health.
Fraser’s commitment to the role is apparent in every scene, and as a result, he crafts a performance that is practically invisible. After about 10 minutes, I completely forgot he was acting and all I saw was Charlie. I honestly don’t think I consciously thought about Brendan Fraser the actor until the credits rolled and his name appeared on-screen, which is the highest compliment I could possibly give him. I was consistently impressed by the emotional weight he was able to pack within a single line.
For the purpose of this review, I decided to check out various excerpts of The Whale the play being performed on stage and I found it to be revealing of this film’s quality as well as Fraser’s brilliance as an actor. Nailing the tone of this play for the adaptation would have been like walking a tightrope. Just the slightest mistake in Fraser’s performance and Aronofsky’s direction would have made it insanely ridiculous, cheesy, and perhaps even offensive, and while the film feels like it’s on the verge of being all of those things, specifically toward the end, it miraculously never gets there. They managed to strike a tone that felt very real and emotionally intense.
It’s hard to put into words the deep emotional connection I felt with Charlie. Obviously, I felt bad for him and the way certain people treated him, but rarely was pity the main thought going through my head. During every scene in the film, I was swept away by the sheer beauty of this character. I was so moved by how he was able to see the good in other people and saddened by how he wasn’t able to see that in himself. Throughout the movie, I wanted to give him a big hug, and when it ended I wished I lived in a world where he was in my life. Even just looking at stills of his character fills my heart with warmth.
Sadie Sink is also wonderful in the film. On paper, Ellie and Charlie are polar opposites. While Charlie only sees the good in people, Ellie only sees the bad. She has no intention of lying about her negative perspective, which is why she is unsuccessful in both her schoolwork and her social life. Their only similarity, it appears, is that they are both unable to see the good within themselves. Throughout the movie, it is Charlie’s objective to make Ellie realize how wonderful of a person she is, despite the fact that Ellie is relentlessly cruel toward him. It’s definitely a tough relationship to stomach, and sometimes you wonder if Charlie is being foolish by trying with her in the first place, but it was emotionally rewarding by the end of the film.
Charlie’s profession as a remote English teacher plays a major part in his characterization. As most students know, English curriculums tend to favor proper formatting over genuine opinions, leading to pointless essays with no real passion behind them. At the start of the film, he’s “playing the role” of an English teacher, telling his students about the importance of topic sentences and making a persuasive argument, but as the film progresses he starts pushing his students to be more authentic in their writing. Charlie has a rare ability, in that he sees the beauty in anything that is honest. However, this also becomes a dilemma for Charlie as he hasn’t been completely truthful with his students. Due to his insecurities revolving around his weight, he teaches his classes with his camera turned off, which he later confronts in one of the most memorable scenes in the film.
The film also depicts Charlie’s eating disorder in a very purposeful way. As opposed to some of the snippets of stage performances I watched, Charlie’s obesity never felt like a gimmick or something for other characters to poke fun at. His eating disorder is directly connected to feelings of self-harm resulting from extreme trauma and a severe lack of self-worth, which is something Aronofsky and Hunter communicate clearly in the film. Charlie’s illness is not an easy thing to watch on screen and will certainly disturb many, but it is never portrayed as derogatory.
In The Whale, Thomas (Ty Simpkins) is a missionary going door to door, spreading the teachings of the New Life Church, who eventually stumbles upon Charlie. Thomas’ interactions with Charlie reveal some interesting facts about our main character’s past and the ways that religion has affected his life. A storyline like this, with all its biblical references and religious symbolism, could have easily felt out of place or annoying, but it’s quite necessary, in that this New Life religion seems to be the thing that connects most of the characters. It also ties into the insurmountable amount of grief Charlie has dealt with and the insecurities that have built up because of it. I’m not as well acquainted with Aronofsky’s work as I perhaps should be, but of the two Aronofsky films I have seen (this and Mother!), The Whale handled its religious ideas with the most subtlety and nuance.
The Whale is a difficult and sad watch due to its triggering depiction of Charlie’s eating disorder, but it’s also a gorgeously raw movie about, among other things, the importance of seeing the good in others. Charlie is a flawed individual, but we could all learn a thing or two from him. He is someone who cares deeply about those around him and genuinely brings out the best in people. The world is a hopeless place and it can be hard not to give in to everyone else’s cruelness.
As I was driving home from the theater, with tears still in my eyes, I felt an intense need to spread some positivity toward those close to me. It also made me want to be more honest with myself and others. The Whale gave me a new perspective on life while making me cry in the process, which is more than I can ask for in a film.