“The Whale”

This film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival

When thinking about “The Whale,” I feel it’s important to start at the end rather than the beginning because the melodramatic finale almost ruins everything that’s good about the film. The finale is grossly manipulative, corny, excessive, and if what came before wasn’t so great, it would diminish director Darren Aronofsky’s entire project. Thanks to a heartbreaking script (from writer Samuel D. Hunter) and a once-in-a-lifetime lead performance from Brendan Fraser, it takes little effort to overlook the film’s more negative aspects.

Based on Hunter’s 2012 play of the same name, the psychological drama tells the story of Charlie (Fraser), a reclusive English professor who is living with severe obesity. Weighing over 600 pounds and unable to leave his home, Charlie spends his days alone in his small, dingy apartment with intermittent visits from his friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau), who is his only companion. It’s been an interesting week for the man, as he’s had two additional unexpected visitors: a religious missionary (Ty Simpkins) who is compelled to continue his visits, and Charlie’s estranged and hostile teenager daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). With his health in grave decline (he repeatedly refuses to seek care at a hospital), Charlie decides to do everything in his power to gain one last chance at redemption in his daughter’s eyes, and every ounce of time he has left is spent reconnecting with her.

The film takes place in a confined space, and the lead character spends the majority of his time sitting on a sofa. This cramped setting feels suffocating, which in turn conveys the feelings that Charlie is also experiencing. This is a story about empathy, and it’s admittedly challenging at first glance to feel a ton of compassion for Charlie no matter how accepting you may think you are or claim to be. His outward appearance is shocking and repellant, and it’s part of human nature to look at him as if he were a freak show attraction. What’s interesting about the film is that it digs deeper beneath Charlie’s obesity and lets you into his heart. I was surprised to find by the end of the story just how much I had grown to care so deeply for him.

Folks who have seen the film and are crying that it is “fat shaming” are missing the point. This isn’t a story about humiliation or degradation, it’s a film about actually seeing the person inside a repulsive exterior and giving them humanity. This is not a project that mocks obesity, as has so often (and sadly) been the case with many Hollywood films. This is a story with substantial and challenging themes about depression, mental illness, and addiction. In this case, Charlie has spent years self-medicating his despair and unhappiness with food, and is now suffering from an eating disorder that has raged out of control.

None of this would be so emotionally touching if not for Fraser’s lead performance. He is impressive and outstanding as Charlie, and it’s one of the greatest cinematic performances in years (and definitely of the actor’s career). It’s not the spectacle of the makeup or fat suit that makes him memorable: it’s how Fraser thoroughly embodies Charlie with a deep, soulful pain in his eyes. His performance absolutely ripped my heart right out of my chest to the point where I found it difficult to breathe. He’s that good.

While there’s been so much talk about Fraser, Chau’s performance is equally heartbreaking. Through her facial expressions and body language, you can see and feel the pain Charlie is causing Liz. Everyone is simply waiting for the man to die, and you’re right there by Liz’s side as she cares for her best friend in a final act of selfless affection. It’s an agonizing thing to watch and experience, and Chau conveys her torment in an understated, poignant way.

If it sounds like this is a tough film to watch, I will assure you that it is. You won’t leave the theater floating on air when it’s over. This is an adult drama that will leave you in tears with its story of resentment, vulnerability, regret, and humanity. That’s also why “The Whale” is one of the very best films of the year.

By: Louisa Moore

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