‘The Whale’ is a character-driven triumph

The buzz surrounding Brendan Fraser’s performance is not exaggerated, but the film manages to reach beyond the hype of his performance alone.

“The Whale,” directed by Daren Aronofsky and based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter, focuses on Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a severely overweight online college teacher whose health has been steadily declining since the devastating death of his boyfriend. He lives a purposefully isolated life, only interacting with his stubborn but kind-hearted nurse Liz (Hong Chau). When Charlie learns he doesn’t have long to live, he attempts to reconnect with his estranged and troubled teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). “The Whale” marks Brendan Fraser’s return to the spotlight, something that the internet has fondly dubbed the “Brenaissance.” 

Darren Arofofsky is widely known for making disturbing and controversial films such as  “Black Swan,” “mother!” and “Requiem for a Dream.” These are all known to be troubling and edgy in their own ways and “The Whale” is no different. Aronofsky does not shy away from uncomfortable imagery or subject matters like mental illness, pain, or death, which can reasonably alienate some audiences. But the risks taken with “The Whale” are necessary to tell an honest story.

The screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter is intentional and poignant, and the dialogue mostly felt authentic. There are moments in the film that detract from the general realism and may seem silly, but they have a purpose in Charlie’s journey and do not diminish the emotional center of the film. 

The film is heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching, displaying a wide variety of emotions from humor to heartbreak. One can tell it is based on a play from the focus on the performances and the single setting of an apartment, but that is not a drawback. The story revolves around grief, trauma, guilt, and how people cope with it. 

The performances are the driving force of the film. 

Brendan Fraser and Sadie Sink both complement each other, with Fraser’s sense of optimism and Sink’s angsty pessimism. The role of Charlie could not have gone to anyone else but Fraser— he brings a certain charisma and genuine feel to the character despite his circumstances and lack of confidence. This helps the audience empathize with him rather than pity him. Hong Chau is magnificent as Liz, bringing humor, sensitivity, and frustration to the film. Ty Simpkins provides awkward comedy as a missionary who isn’t sure how to deal with Charlie or his daughter. Sink’s character is easy to dislike given her abrasive attitude and cruel actions, but through Charlie’s eyes, the audience will seek to understand her and sympathize with her situation. 

Many people have expressed discomfort with the film, saying it is gross and hard to watch, which was likely Aronofsky’s goal. Charlie struggles with eating and his weight due to his grief. Obesity in popular culture is often shamed, but the film explores how grief and depression can lead to coping mechanisms like Charlie’s over-eating. Overall the movie is very touching and scenes where the character is grappling with his problems and his body are more sad than disgusting. 

Fatphobia in Hollywood is still a major issue, but this film does not criticize those who are overweight. Some content creators have expressed concerns on how the film could be used to perpetuate fatphobia, which is a valid concern, but a slippery slope on its own. Charlie is overweight because he is dealing with the loss of a loved one, but he is framed as a layered human that the audience could connect with. He is not criticized by Aronofsky; rather, he is portrayed objectively. 

The film also discusses the complicated relationship that Charlie and the surrounding characters have with religion. Religion is not outright demonized in the film, but rather approached sincerely with the negatives not glossed over. It primarily acknowledges the damage it has done to the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as to relationships between family members and friends. The storytelling here is not limited to the screenplay; Aronofsky highlights the themes in his visuals as well. 

Aronofsky chose to film the movie in 4:3 aspect ratio, which means the images were closer to a square than the conventional wide rectangle most audiences are used to. This adds a confined, claustrophobic feeling to the movie, mirroring Charlie’s physical and emotional state of being trapped. The only times the aspect ratio changed were when the character felt more free. 

Brendan Fraser has received excessive praise for his performance, which is worth seeing, even if Darren Aronofsky is not one’s cup of tea. Though it is a bit of a cliché for actors to be commended for performances that involve a physical transformation–with many complaining that actors often win Oscars due to impressive makeup–Fraser’s performance does not rely on his appearance. He proves himself with every smile, every line delivery, his body language, and every tear. There was not one moment where the audience doubted him.  

“The Whale” is currently playing in theaters.

4.5 out of 5 Star Rating
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