One of the final films to hit the big screen in 2022 was A24’s The Whale, directed by Darren Aronofsky and adapted from the play of the same name written by Samuel D. Hunter. Brendan Fraser (The Mummy, With Honors) stars as a man named Charlie, while Sadie Sink (Stranger Things, All Too Well: The Short Film) plays his daughter Ellie and Hong Chau (Watchmen, The Menu) plays his best friend Liz. We also see Ty Simpkins (Jurassic World, Insidious) as a young missionary determined to save Charlie’s soul.
IMDb’s simple summary of the film reads, “A reclusive English teacher attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter.” At face value, this plot isn’t exactly unique or groundbreaking. The story of a divorced man trying to bond with his daughter from a broken marriage has been told time and again, both in the cinema and in real life. Yet, it’s this common relatability that makes this film hit so close to home for many viewers. The general premise may not be one-of-a-kind, but the characters’ emotions are utterly raw, and the movie as a whole is incredibly moving.
The film is far more complex than the strained relationship between a father and daughter. One of the foremost themes of the movie is obesity. Although some critics have flamed the film as fatphobic, the emphasis is not on fatness being inherently bad, but rather on how severe obesity is a real, life-threatening condition that can be brought on by a multitude of factors, including genetics, environment, and mental state. While we do see certain characters responding negatively to Charlie’s appearance, the film is more greatly concerned not with Charlie being fat, but rather with the fact that he is sick and dying. One might argue that the filmmakers could have therefore given Charlie any deadly disease, but that would make for a much different story. People with obesity face a unique set of challenges, which we see Charlie struggle with and, for the most part, try to hide from.
Obesity is not the only serious issue that The Whale tackles. Two significant themes are Christianity and gay love, as well as the turmoil that can occur when the two overlap. We see this conflict of ideas through multiple characters: a gay man whose partner was raised Christian and struggles with coinciding his religion with his sexuality; a woman who was adopted into a devoutly religious family, but adamantly did not share their views; and a boy who believes he can save people through the Bible. The film brilliantly portrays the devastating reality of religious trauma and how it can destroy families and relationships, and even lead to death. I never would have guessed religion and homosexuality would be such prominent themes in this movie from the trailer alone, so it was a very pleasant (albeit heart-wrenching) surprise.
It’s obvious even from the short plot summary that family is an important topic in the movie, but it goes further than just the father and daughter. Something the film subtly deals with is what exactly constitutes “family.” Is it blood? Legal documents, such as adoption papers or a marriage certificate? Or is it the people you choose to spend time with? And does being estranged from your family automatically mean you no longer care about them? The Whale poses these questions rather than answers them, but in a way that makes you think and reflect rather than leaving you feeling unsatisfied. I was particularly pleased with the extremely realistic portrayal of Charlie’s relationship with Ellie, in which she feels so spurned by him that she treats him as subhuman and yet continues to visit him of her own accord, whereas he wants nothing more than for her to be happy even though she treats him with nothing but disrespect and the women in his life warn him that re-establishing a relationship with her will only harm him.
An aspect that I, as someone who works in the field of education, found particularly fascinating was the idea that there are limits to education. The film asks which is more important and beneficial for students: staying within the confines of a teacher’s instructions for the sole purpose of completing an assignment for a grade, or being honest and authentically expressing their thoughts and opinions? This is especially relevant in a society where a whole generation spent at least a year of schooling online, and the format of education going forward desperately needs to be reevaluated.
Lastly, the film explores the depth of human nature. It simultaneously argues that some people are truly evil and beyond redemption, as well as that everyone deserves love; it’s up to the audience to decide which perspective to believe.
If I had to choose one word to describe what The Whale is about overall, I would say “grief.” Everyone in this film is grieving something, but they aren’t all simply sad: some are furious, some are heartbroken beyond repair, and some are hopeful. But the character whose grief is most prominent is Charlie. I cannot even properly put into words how moving Fraser’s performance was; it’s clear that this man put everything he has into this role. Every single “I’m sorry” from Charlie was a knife in my heart, and his raw agony moved the whole audience to tears.
I don’t have a lot of critiques for this film. The ongoing Moby Dick metaphor seemed a little too on the nose at first, but it turned out to be very meaningful. There’s one particular clip at the very end that was so cliché and threw off the movie’s tone so drastically that it made me give it 9.5 or even 9 stars; without that one-second moment, I would easily give The Whale a full 10 stars. The various themes—obesity, family, religion, sexuality, human nature, education, grief—mend together beautifully and coherently to tell a thoroughly heartbreaking and thought-provoking story. It’s no wonder to me that this film is expected to be nominated for at least one Oscar.
The Whale is now playing only in theaters. You can watch the trailer below: