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The Whale (2022)—An Honest Look at Religious Trauma

The Whale movie poster

Back in the 1990s, Brendan Fraser was a huge star with several leading roles such as George of the Jungle, Encino Man and The Mummy films under his belt. It seems like there was nothing that could go wrong, except a nasty divorce and sexual assault by the director of the HFPA which resulted in him being blacklisted from Hollywood. After almost ten years, Fraser made what many consider his career comeback.

Charlie (played by Brendan Fraser) is a depressed, morbidly obese man who is struggling with binge eating after the death of his boyfriend, Alan. To make ends meet, he teaches an online college writing course where he keeps his laptop camera turned off. One day, he nearly has a heart attack as a young missionary, Thomas (played by Ty Simpkins) stops at his apartment. Charlie learns from his friend Liz (played by Hong Chau) who’s a registered nurse, that his blood pressure is dangerously high and he will only have a week to live. Upon learning this, he decides to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ellie (played by Sadie Sink) under the guise of writing her high school essays. As his time nears and dark secrets of Ellie’s resurface, Charlie begins to contemplate his life and what he can do to help Ellie.

Brendan Fraser in The Whale

Darren Aronofksy is known for directing films on heavy subject matter. The best way to describe his directing style is grungy and unrestrained, not afraid to show the reality behind the characters’ struggles. For example, he shows what exactly Charlie goes through on a day-to-day basis, from showing the layout of his apartment, to shots of Charlie walking in a walker and even scenes of Charlie binge eating pizza, fried chicken, meatball subs and drinking diet Pepsi. Showing just how much depression and binge eating can affect someone’s physical and mental wellbeing. Charlie knows that he doesn’t have much time left, so he really doesn’t care much for his health. Rather, he dedicates what time he does have left to reconciling with and helping his daughter.

This brings me to my next point: the acting. Aronofsky was going to shelve the project entirely because he couldn’t find anyone who could fill Charlie’s shoes. After watching Journey to the End of the Night, he decided that Fraser would be the perfect fit for Charlie. And boy was Aronofsky right. Brendan Fraser is not only a solid comedic actor, he is a seriously good dramatic actor. He can make you cry and he can also warm your heart with just a subtle look in his eye or a slight change of tone in his voice. And when he truly shows his performance at its climax, you can’t help but get misty-eyed or even cry out loud. When The Whale was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 2022, Fraser received a six minute standing ovation for his performance, and later took home the Oscar for Best Actor at the 95th Academy Awards! Not only is he an extraordinary actor, but he is nothing but kind and humble, always making sure to credit everyone else’s efforts in the film.

Sadie Sink in The Whale

But besides Fraser, the rest of the cast also holds their own. Hong Chau is nothing short of excellent as Liz. She shows concern for Charlie’s physical health and tries to do whatever it takes for him to live longer including getting him a wheelchair, taking care of him on call and pressuring him to go to a hospital to get proper treatment. This is the second film I’ve seen with Hong Chau, the first being The Menu and I have to say, she continues to impress me with her acting. Meanwhile, Sadie Sink as Ellie does a wonderful job showing her subdued rage at her father from just a single glance or stare. She has come a long way from her first appearance in Stranger Things and I can’t wait to see where her career will take her!

But besides the absolutely stellar acting from the entire cast, there’s something else I wanted to talk about, which is the theme of honesty and love. Throughout the film, Charlie struggles to be honest with himself, Liz and Ellie. He struggled to keep his identity secret from his students by keeping his camera off, he lies to Liz about not being able to afford healthcare or going to a hospital and he has Ellie lie to her mother about spending time with him. However, he realizes that although Ellie appears rather prickly on the outside, deep down she is a good person as she helps Thomas open up about his troubled past which led to him to run away from home and even helps him return home. But this theme is on full display by the end of the film, when Charlie tearfully reveals to his estranged wife that the reason why he will never give up on Ellie is because he wants to do one thing right in his life. He later emails his students to forget about the readings and other typical class work and write something honest to him. His students begin to open up about their lives and he congratulates them in one of the most memorable lines in the film before turning on his camera for the first and last time.

Brendan Fraser emotional in The Whale
"The readings don't matter, the coursework doesn't matter. What matters are these honest things you wrote"

Another theme that is pervasive in the film is that of religious trauma and grief. Charlie, along with Alan, were former members of Thomas’ church. The church disapproved of their relationship, which caused Alan who is also Liz’s brother to commit suicide. As such, both Liz and Charlie share an immense hate for the church for their backwards views on homosexuality. Their hatred is manifested in the way they interact with Thomas, with Charlie being more dismissive and displaying a repressed form of anger while Liz is much more open about her hatred of the church, yelling at him to leave Charlie alone. Upon learning of Alan’s homosexuality, Thomas attempts to preach to Charlie who angrily rebukes him.

Upon its release, The Whale faced a lot of scrutiny for its portrayal of obese people and being called fat phobic. In fact, many were taking shots at Brendan Fraser for not being a fat person to play a fat person on screen. Now I might not be the best person to touch on this issue, but I didn’t see how The Whale is fat phobic. It tells the story of a man who became morbidly obese due to depression which caused him to neglect his physical health. Now on the topic of Fraser getting attacked, this is simply uncalled for. Fraser is an actor and is doing his job. He wasn’t approaching the role from a harmful perspective. Charlie was not portrayed as an offensive stereotype, he simply a man in grief, someone that is relatable to anyone.

Hong Chau in The Whale

Like many of Aronofsky’s films, The Whale is an uncomfortable watch that depicts the struggles of obesity, depression and the effects of trauma. However, it is also filled to the brim with powerful and emotional performances from its small cast, especially from Brendan Fraser himself. Despite the film being under fire from critics for its nonsensical depiction of fat phobia, it is no doubt that this film is largely responsible for Fraser’s comeback into mainstream Hollywood.

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