Overview:

Don’t let the controversy deter you. Brendan Fraser is at his all-time best, and Darren Aronofsky has crafted another captivating film.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“People are incapable of not caring.”

This is perhaps the most poignant line in Darren Aronofsky’s profound, empathic new film The Whale. I also think it’s true.

Sadly, there are plenty of barriers to caring. Racism and sexism. Political othering. And, explored most deeply in The Whale, self-loathing and faith-based manipulation.

If you allow this film to work on you, it will devastate you. And that’s not a bad thing. On paper, a story about a morbidly obese recluse who is possibly in the final week of his life sounds pretty damn depressing. But The Whale is primarily beautiful and hopeful about the human condition.

Kind of like life itself, you have to get through some dark stuff to find the beauty. This is reflected in the cinematography by Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky’s go-to director of photography. The color scheme is dingy and gray. The aspect ratio is narrowed to 4:3, downright claustrophobic on a wide screen. Libatique lenses his characters closely, the screen often filled with their head and shoulders. Our protagonist’s two-bedroom apartment feels appropriately oppressive.

A career-best Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, creative writing professor for an online university. Teaching via videoconferencing app—again with those confining boxes—he keeps his camera off, due to shame over his appearance. Even the slightest exertion, whether laughing or masturbating to gay porn, induces chest pain. When his only friend Liz (Hong Chau) makes her daily visit, she urges him yet again to seek medical attention for his congestive heart failure. Yet again, he refuses.

It’s difficult to write about The Whale without crossing into spoiler territory. Samuel D. Hunter’s script, adapted from his own stage play, expertly doles out exposition to keep us engaged and curious. Without spoiling much, I can say both Charlie and Liz lost someone very dear to them, and religious trauma had everything to do with it. As is commonly the case, it was inflicted by intolerant parents, and the adult version of the child couldn’t shake the guilt over disappointing them.

Like the best art, The Whale doesn’t deliver pat answers. It’s not a how-to guide on recovery from religious trauma.

Early on, a missionary from a local church arrives on Charlie’s doorstep, attempting to prepare him for the imminent arrival of the end times. In a lesser work, we would immediately dislike a character like Thomas. But thanks to Ty Simpkins’ performance, Thomas sympathetically lacks real-life experience. He clearly means well, but has been diverted into conversion mode by youthful indoctrination.

The last major character who spends a lot of time onscreen is Charlie’s daughter Ellie (Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink). Estranged since Charlie came out of the closet nine years ago, Ellie is now a pissed-off, destructively rebellious high school senior. Desperate to reconnect, Charlie literally offers to buy time with her, promising his life savings to Ellie if she visits.

All of these visitors to a recluse signify that despite our efforts to isolate, there are still numerous people who matter to us, and vice versa. Chau, Simpkins, and Sink play these guests expertly. But The Whale rides mainly on Brendan Fraser’s performance, and he scores an A+. Shot close-up, he emanates vulnerability and kindness. His exhaustion at any movement and his self-loathing when he binges on junk food are wholly believable.

Regrettably, many are criticizing The Whale as fat-shaming. Roxane Gay has perhaps expressed this outrage most forcefully in her New York Times column, calling Aronofsky’s film a “carnival sideshow,” before concluding with “come look at the freak, the movie beckons.” (Her essay divulges every plot turn, too, so consider yourself forewarned.)

Clearly, I disagree. I understand the readiness to take offense, given Hollywood’s long use of obesity as a punchline, from Ollie Hardy to Eddie Murphy. And though Charlie’s 600-pound obesity is extreme, it’s not terribly rare. In our clinical day jobs, my wife and I have treated countless individuals brought to medical crisis by morbid obesity. One of my first hospital patients as a medical intern was an 800-pound recluse, depressed and verging on sepsis from infected bedsores. My wife and I have both worked with patients who, like Charlie, used food as a barrier to intimacy: a victim of sexual trauma overeating so she won’t look “desirable,” a combat veteran wanting to appear “ugly” to reflect his own self-hatred.

Charlie captures this psychological dynamic excellently. He’s always apologizing to those around him. He prods Thomas and Ellie to say they’re disgusted by him. Yet Charlie is a beautiful man, a guy any sane person would gladly call a friend. He’s smart and funny and interesting. He’s generous to a fault.

Ironically, Charlie perceives his daughter as kind, smart, and amazing. But she really isn’t! Mind you, she isn’t awful, but she’s a commonplace defiant teenager, channeling her intelligence into devious behavior and hurtful remarks. Charlie is projecting his own traits onto his daughter, unable to see his own goodness.

Scriptwriter Samuel D. Hunter has spoken movingly in interviews about the autobiographical nature of The Whale. Poisoned by the dogma of his fundamentalist high school, his same-sex attraction revolted him and fostered an eating disorder. Hunter’s identification with Charlie is another reason I disagree with the movie’s haters.

(As a movie lover, I think it’s important to extend good faith towards directors we trust. I will always pay to watch a new film by Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, or Hirokazu Koreeda. And Aronofsky is no action-movie-by-the-numbers hack. Even if flawed, films like The Swan, Mother!, and Noah have been rewarding. I’d exhort you to keep this in mind, rather than hop on the headline-grabbing outrage bandwagon.)

Like the best art, The Whale doesn’t deliver pat answers. It’s not a how-to guide on recovery from religious trauma. But there’s immense power in recognizing yourself onscreen and seeing psychological manipulation called out for its noxiousness.

In Aronofsky and Hunter’s film, there’s a whole lotta saving going on, or attempts at it. Liz and Thomas are trying to save Charlie. Charlie battles to save Ellie. Ellie wants to save Thomas. The Whale shows that only we can rescue ourselves, but it’s still crucial to have good people on our side.

(The Whale is now playing in theaters.)

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