Towards the end of Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), full of contentment mixed with a hint of surprise, poses the question to his longtime friend and caretaker Liz (Hong Chau): “Do you ever get the feeling people are incapable of not caring? People are amazing,” he proclaims. This comes after spending weeks with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who uses vitriolic speech and sneaky acts to “help” people. The approach by which Sink’s character does these things comes off incredibly insensitive, no matter the intentions. And these moments, in combination with the overall message that Aronofsky and screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter delivers about fatness is shockingly vile and disappointing.
Adapted from Hunter’s 2012 stage play of the same name, The Whale follows Charlie, a self-reclusive, obese English teacher, as he attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter Ellie. Determined to redeem himself after years of staying out of her life, Charlie promises Ellie a huge paycheck for spending time with him. The catch? All she has to do is write in a notebook while he, in turn, helps Ellie pass her English class. A fair deal, right? Not quite, considering Charlie must endure verbal abuse by Ellie in the process. Whatever inspiring message the filmmakers thought they were giving with this script is severely outcompeted by its repulsive messaging on “fatness” and how we treat people thereof.
The Whale is disappointing.
I cannot state this enough, but I damn near hate The Whale. It is extremely suffocating and unable to break away from that stage-play ambiance. Outside of Fraser’s Charlie, the film contains some truly insufferable characters. But most importantly, and quite frankly the main source of my disdain, it says nothing profound about humanity’s abhorrent behavior towards fat people. Instead, it endorses it by regurgitating hatefulness then reimaging it as goodwill. Instead of trying to convince the audience that Charlie is a repugnant being, screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter should have used that energy to fully condemn society and how we treat people like Charlie like anything other than human.
When the film isn’t deep into lecturing its viewers on using blatancy as a means to “help” people, the film overcompensates for its lack of soul and humanity by giving Charlie a tragic backstory to explain away his obesity. Whether or not this follows the plot of the original stage play is something I, admittedly, do not know. But I am certain that as is, The Whale (the film), struggles to say anything meaningful about people and oversells the characterizations and the relationships in a way that doesn’t feel natural.
Brendan Fraser is a gift.
I could go on about all the details that bother me about Aronofsky’s latest including Sadie Sink’s intolerable, albeit well-acted, Ellie and the actions she takes to provide “support” to the people around her. Then, there’s the lifeless cinematography and dull landscape by which viewers are forced to sit through: perhaps, a symbolic representation of how it must feel to be physically limited. Then, there’s Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a religious missionary, whose only purpose seems to be a target for Ellie’s foul vitriol to mask her loneliness. Seriously, this script couldn’t have been any worse. And the film’s only saving grace, the gift that is Brendan Fraser, is underutilized mostly because of what this role calls for.
Honestly, The Whale didn’t need to be made. It doesn’t really add to the ongoing conversation about how we, as a society, view obesity. Nor does it offer anything profound to say about mental health and how that can impact a person’s physical health. Whatever the intention behind the feature–to offer insights about humanity or even to push the Brendan Fraser renaissance full steam ahead–The Whale ultimately feels like a missed opportunity above all else.
The Whale is in theaters now. Check out the A24 trailer below: