Written by: Samuel D. Hunter
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
Choices we make in life contribute to the ripple effect we have on those around us with some decisions causing more of a shockwave than others. In the end, we must live with what decisions were made and have to reckon with whether we’ll receive an opportunity to rectify the damage done intentionally or not. This idea runs throughout The Whale in a way that elevates its emotional heights but it falters in its overall composition.
Following the death of his boyfriend, Charlie (Brendan Fraser) has overeaten to the point of being morbidly obese and physically hampered in being able to perform daily activities without assistance. With him realizing he is on the verge of death, he hopes to reconnect with his daughter from his previous marriage in his quest to have done at least one thing well.
For everything this feature works on through its emotional storytelling, the attention-grabbing aspect of this feature for most will be the image of Brendan Fraser in the “fat suit.” An often derided tactic used in Hollywood to tell stories about overweight individuals but have them portrayed by typically thinner actors. One could argue that perhaps they could just hire individuals of that size to portray characters matching the physical description but that ruins the opportunity for the shock factor of seeing a good-looking actor appear to have the same appearance as a normal obese individual. All that being said, everyone will come to see this for Fraser and he undeniably proves to be worth it.
Marking as his triumphant return following the horrifying stories of the sexual assaults he received that essentially halted his career, seeing him come back with this type of performance is incredibly heartwarming. He truly delivers something special here with the character of Charlie, an eternal optimist when it comes to his belief in others but someone who seemingly hates himself and how he has impacted others. What has led to his morbidly obese status comes from an eating disorder and with that this film should definitely come with a trigger warning indicating as such as some of the scenes where he’s consuming food in an uncomfortable manner really drive the point across of this man’s emotional state. In those moments you feel for this man and the anguish burning him up from the inside where he does not care for his physical existence any longer and simply wants to go out knowing his daughter will be okay.
When the feature focuses on him, everything works so well, which then gets completely torn down with the introduction of the daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). A character who undoubtedly is meant to be terrible, as everyone can see except for Charlie, the eternal optimist. He sees her as perfect and a good person despite all of the evidence pointing to the contrary. While unlikeable characters are meant to prod and annoy the audience, the central issue that arises with Ellie is that she’s incredibly one-note and deeply uninteresting. You’ve gotta feel bad for Sadie Sink as she was saddled with an impossible character to make grounded or anything other than a hilariously ridiculously mean person. It came across as overly done and it absolutely ruins what is meant to be emotionally resonant scenes. You feel these moments for Charlie, but not even he is enough to get through these moments the film desperately wants you to start crying for. The very apex of the emotional strength of this film, however, comes from the relationship Charlie has with Liz (Hong Chau).
While Fraser is the undisputed main highlight of this feature, the close second goes to Hong Chau. A long-underappreciated actor, she’s absolutely transcendent in this role. It made me wish it was just a two-hander between her and Fraser rather than the other trove of supporting actors shaping out the rest of the feature. A particular scene where Charlie nearly choked on a meatball sub did more on an emotional and character level than all of the intended crescendos happening later on. These two worked together tremendously.
For all The Whale wants you to feel, when the end credit rolled around there was this sense of emptiness in what’s meant to be this highly emotional sequence. While some of the blame comes from the characterization of Ellie, some of it has to go to Darren Aronofsky. A filmmaker who knows how to dig into insecurities and the ugly emotional center of people, he never fully grasps this story and makes it something it could have been. He instead gets bailed out by the tremendous actors he has available to him here to deliver on these intended emotional moments. The direction faltered and the screenplay just did not click into what this could have been. This surely will connect more with others but that’s the beauty of cinema and how our personal experiences impact the way we see a story play out.