I am very torn about this one.
The new film from director Darren Aronofsky is entitled The Whale and it was at times, a triumph, and at other times, an insult.
Charlie (Brendan Fraser) was a morbidly obese English teacher who was carrying on his classes through Zoom. Charlie had suffered through some terrible personal tragedies that led to his weigh gain and his numerous health issues. His friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau) was not only a protector and a helper, but also an enabler for Charlie’s deadly eating habit. Despite Liz’s insistence, Charlie refused to go to the hospital and be treated for his health issues that seemed prepared to kill him.
During this week, Charlie attempted to reconnect with his estranged daughter, the daughter he left when she was eight year old, Ellie (Sadie Sink). Ellie was a borderline sociopath and only kept coming to Charlie for the money he was going to give her. Or was there more that she was trying to do?
A local, young missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins) was going door-to-door to preach for the local religious group and he came across Charlie in a state of pain. Thomas was convinced that God had brought him to Charlie to help him, though there was more to the young man than what he let on.
There is no doubt that the standout section of this movie is the remarkable performances, lead by Brendan Fraser himself. Fraser exceeded just the prosthetics and delivered one of the best individual performances of the year. He brought such an emotion and a power to Charlie that he was able to elevate the character above some of the cruelty that the film heaped upon him.
Brendan Fraser is supported with several really great performances in a film that is basically set in Charlie’s living room. Hong Chau is amazing as Liz, the nurse who tried to get Charlie to get help before it is too late. She was exceptional in every scene she was in. Plus, there was an unbelievable performance from Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink as Charlie’s daughter.
Of course, while I believe that all of the supporting performances were outstanding, there is not a single character among them that is not a rotten, horrible person that projects their own issues onto Charlie. Charlie, on the other hand, feels like a character that is positive and intelligent, but who is crushed beneath the hatred of the film toward him. There are so many attempts in the film to make him out to be disgusting that it avoided who he was as a character.
This was the reason I felt so uncertain about what I was watching. As a person who is fat and who has been extremely fat, there felt to me like there was a concerted effort to fat shame Charlie and to go out of the way to be cruel to him. Instead of dealing with his overeating as a symptom of his depression over the loss of his boyfriend to suicide, the film feels as if his eating is something to blame Charlie for and to make him gross. I could relate to Charlie in a lot of ways, but the film did not want people to relate to him so they went out of the way to show Charlie as a monster.
There was also a definite homophobic nature to several scenes in the movie and, while it is never specifically called out, it absolutely exists. There was a particularly gross scene between Charlie and Thomas that brings this to the light and is never dealt with properly.
There was a scene with a pizza delivery guy (Sathya Sridharan) that made me angry when it happened. It was a chance for the film to show some empathy toward Charlie, but it failed drastically to do so. There is a serious lack of empathy for Charlie. I am struggling to come up with an example of it, even among the characters that were supposed to be his friends.
So I am torn. While I found much of this movie to be cruel and gross, the actors take that grossness and cruelty and act the heck out of it. I had a general icky feeling coming out of The whale for the subject matter and the manner in which they address Charlie simply because of his disability, but I was impressed with the skill the actors displayed in having their characters be so horrible. It has several five star performances, but the overall rating or The whale is…