Plot: “A reclusive, morbidly obese English teacher attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter.” -IMDB
Review: Cinema is at its most powerful when it tells stories of people and characters who are often unseen. In these spaces, films can become a vehicle for empathy, delivering us into spaces and situations often misunderstood or ignored. The Whale is such a story.
Flipping through the channels, one doesn’t have to work too hard to stumble across programming about people struggling with their weight. In this search for “reality,” honest struggles, family dysfunction/dynamics, and a full picture are often missing. Hiding behind a black square on a video call, we meet Charlie (Brendan Fraser). Charlie is complex and reclusive. He is in love with the English language, passionate about inspiring the next generation of writers, and is desperate to see the best of everyone.
In the opening scenes, Charlie suffers a cardiac event. Without medical intervention, Charlie will die. His best friend in the world, Liz (Hong Chau), is a nurse. Long ago, she retired from any notion of Charlie going to a hospital. Knowing the end is near, she works desperately to make her friend comfortable in his last days, but the clock is ticking and never ceases. As an audience member, this clock will render you helpless, frustrated, and hopeful. These emotions will stay with you until the very end.
With mere days to live, Charlie attempts to make things right with an estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). Ellie is a product of divorce and abandonment. She is angry and lashing out at the world. She is angry at her father, her mother, school, and the world. Charlie will spend every ounce of energy in his remaining days attempting to reach her. Ellie pushes back violently, delivering lines of dialogue that cut like a knife.
Charlie also spends much of this film entertaining, debating, and pushing back against a young missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who refuses to turn away from a mission to save Charlie’s soul before the end. In every interaction with each person who enters his apartment, Charlie’s humanity shines brightly. He never stops believing in the best in people, even when he disagrees with them.
In the film’s last act, we come to understand that history is truth. Charlie wasn’t always this big. A series of heartbreaking events delivered him to this cataclysmic point in time. In his struggle, I believe the filmmakers want us to hold a mirror up to ourselves. All alone, we will watch him succumb to temptation, settle into his reality, battle his past demons, and attempt to leave behind something meaningful. This battle is one of the most emotionally crippling scenes I have ever seen committed to film.
Leaving the theater, I cried all the way to my car. I also wrestled with my sadness and past. Whose pain and struggles have gone unseen by me? Who have I hurt? Who is waging a private war I will never fully understand? If this film should make the audience more empathetic and caring, then I would say it more than accomplished its mission.
Be good to each other,
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