Thursday, June 22, 2023


Film: The Whale
Format: DVD from Franklin Grove Public Library through interlibrary loan on basement television.

You have to know going in that The Whale is not going to be a happy movie. Darren Aronofsky, who made Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Pi, and Black Swan does not make happy movies. His movies are deep, the stories are intense and interesting, but they are not happy. Many of Aronofsky’s films are about people who are extreme in some way—in their appetites, in their actions, and The Whale is no different. Brendan Fraser rightfully got a great deal of hype for this role, and this is a film that centers entirely on his performance, aided ably by his entire supporting cast.

Charlie (Fraser) is an online English teacher who tells his students that the camera on his laptop is broken. The truth is that he refuses to turn on the camera because he is morbidly obese. Charlie isn’t merely fat, but 700 pounds fat, unable to easily rise from his chair or move without a walker, blood pressure double a safe number obese. From what we can see, Charlie is a pretty good English teacher and seems to genuinely care about his students.

We are introduced to some of the major players aside from Charlie right away. We are quickly introduced to Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary from a local church with which Charlie has a long and painful history. He is there to proselytize to Charlie, not realizing that Charlie is a gay man whose partner killed himself in large part over religious guilt. When Charlie has something like an attack, Charlie wants to help, both in terms of Charlie’s physical issues and his spiritual ones. We are also going to meet Liz (Hong Chau, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress), who is Charlie’s friend, the sister of Charlie’s late partner, and something like Charlie’s nurse.

We are also soon going to meet Ellie (Sadie Sink), who is Charlie’s daughter from his previous marriage to Mary (Samantha Morton). Ellie is filled with rage about her life, about her father, who abandoned her and her mother years previous, and about her mother’s descent into alcoholism and addiction. Charlie is desperate to reconnect with her, and offers her essentially all of his money and to help her with the classes she is failing if she will spend time with him and write for him as well.

It's not a surprise that this is based on a stage play. Aside from a flashback or two, the entire story takes place in Charlie’s two bedroom apartment, and most of that takes place in his living room. This is a story that isn’t about location, though. It’s not important that this takes place in Moscow, Idaho (which is where the author grew up), so we don’t need establishing shots. This is a story about the internal world of Charlie, about what has happened to his life to spiral out of control in the way that it has, and with the relationships that he has had and destroyed for one reason or another.

Fraser, of course, won the Oscar for this role, and it is truly the performance of his career. I like Brendan Fraser, and I think it’s sad as hell how much he’s dealt with in his life. It also seems to have given him the depth necessary to play a character like Charlie, who is so quick to see the value in other people and so unable to see the value in himself. It’s a role that is perfectly cast, and watching something like Encino Man or Dudley Doright doesn’t show the true skill of the man buried in the fat suit (although there were hints in Gods and Monsters).

Fraser is helped tremendously by his cast. Hong Chau had a hell of a 2022 with this film and The Menu, and she is a gem in this. That said, it seems somehow incorrect that Sadie Sink was overlooked in the Oscars race. Sink is playing a difficult character here. Ellie is difficult to like and difficult to watch, and a lot of that comes from Sink’s ability to make Ellie both terrible and compelling. She is fascinating in large part because she is so terrible. Samantha Morton is here for just a cup of coffee, but as usual, she’s great on screen. Ty Simpkins is also surprising here, since his Thomas needs to be both an innocent and someone guarding a terrible secret at the same time, and he also needs to be capable of terrible religious fervor, all of which he accomplishes.

Like most Aronofsky films, The Whale is not a film that would be considered “fun” to watch by any stretch of the imagination. This is not an enjoyable film, but it is a good to great one. It’s a small film, though, which means that it easily gets lost in the shuffle of CGI and explosions that are always on offer. Character films are much easier to ignore or overlook, but this is one that should be watched. The story is a good one, but it’s the performances from all involved that make the whole thing what it is.

Why to watch The Whale: Brendan Fraser is a standout in a stellar cast.
Why not to watch: If you’re not prepared for Aronofsky, you won’t be prepared for this.


  1. My only interest for the film is the fact that it's from Darren Aronofsky and I want to see if Brendan Fraser really earned this Oscar as he was one of my dad's favorite actors.

    1. Honestly, those interests are enough. Fraser is better than he's ever showed he could be in the past, and as someone who genuinely likes Brendan Fraser, that's saying something.

  2. Aside from Fraiser and Chau, I thought this was kind of a dud. I felt bad for Sadie Sink's character as she was just truly awful. The entire subplot with the bible kid went nowhere interesting either.

    1. I don't disagree. This really is about the two acting nominations and not much more. Fraser is fantastic, as is Chau. I think it's at least a good film on the strength of what they did.

      Sadie Sink's character is pretty terrible, but I think her performance of a terribl character isn't bad.