In contemplation of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, a heartbreaking story of a teacher who attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter…
by: Carolynn Kingyens
There has been a simmering hype in the months leading up to the December 9th U.S. release date of Darren Aronofsky’s film The Whale. The hype began shortly after the film had its world premiere at the 79th Venice International Film Festival on September 4, 2022, garnering a six-minute standing ovation. Much of that impassioned applause was due to the fact that The Whale heralds the return of veteran actor Brendan Fraser, whose performance in the film is being appropriately lauded. Aronofsky has pulled this trick off before, spotlighting Mickey Rourke, who hadn’t been prominently featured in films for some time, in his 2008 triumph The Wrestler. This is similar to how Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction featured the elated return to the screen of John Travolta. In each case, all three actors had been unfairly typecast early in their careers as the beefy heartthrobs, who are equally capable of showing more dramatic depth and range to the tune of the highest levels of film accolades. Fraser’s performance in The Whale is nothing short of transcendent. It must be noted, however, that the entire cast is brilliant including actors Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, and Samantha Morton.
The Whale is based on a screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter, an adaptation of his 2012 play of the same name. In it, Fraser plays the remorseful protagonist, Charlie, an estranged, morbidly obese father who is trying to reconnect with his belligerent seventeen-year-old daughter, Ellie, played by Stranger Things alum, Sadie Sink. To make ends meet, Charlie works as an online English professor, teaching college students the fundamentals of essay writing from the confines of his couch. He lies to his students when he tells them that his camera is broken as a way to avoid them having to see his true state of being.
Charlie is gay, and left Ellie’s mother after falling in love with a man, who was a former adult night student of his. Out of spite, and maybe even a little paranoia, his ex-wife, Mary, played by Samantha Morton, keeps Ellie away from Charlie for eight long years, only for her to return when she is a few months shy of graduating high school. When he sees his daughter again, she is no longer that sweet, happy young girl he fondly remembers. He loves Ellie deeply, but he finds that trying to rebuild a relationship with her may be too little too late.
Ellie reminds me of Riley, the central character in the 2015 Disney film Inside Out, whose mind houses emotions represented by Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger based on her core memories. According to Wikipedia, “The aspects of five most important “core memories” within Riley’s personality incorporate the form of five floating islands.” We watch, over time, each floating island of core memory grow dark and angry within Riley. Ellie’s floating islands of core memory, particularly the ones that involve her father, grow dark and angry as well. It’s important for Charlie that his daughter knows that people care about her, and that maybe, deep down, she cares about others, too.
I think what makes The Whale so relatable is the domino-like fall-out from the human condition to which none of us can truly escape. Life has a way of throwing devastating curve balls, and Charlie, Ellie, Liz and Thomas are not immune. For Charlie, the human condition manifests within his obese physical state due to his chronic, and at times, epic binge-eating episodes to the point of almost choking to death. His binge-eating is a symptom of a larger problem, namely emotions such as shame, guilt, grief, and remorse — emotions that are literally swallowing him whole in the same way that the Biblical whale swallowed Jonah. There’s also a nod to Melville’s beloved novel Moby Dick, which metaphysically parallels the story of Jonah and the Whale, particularly the faith, or lack of faith, of the two protagonists.
The antagonist of the film is a character named Thomas, played by Insidious trilogy actor Ty Simpkins. Thomas is a young Christian missionary who knocks on Charlie’s door at his exact moment in need, calling it “a divine intervention.” Thomas is from New Life Church, a local Christian outreach that has caused detrimental harm to Liz, played powerfully by Hong Chau, Charlie’s friend and caregiver, by way of her family’s close association to the church, and their subsequent fall-out. Liz orders Thomas to leave Charlie alone yet Thomas only returns again and again.
Personally, Thomas was hard to watch as I grew up in a similar church as New Life, and attended Christian private school for most of my life, including University. And even though I still hold onto my saving faith in Jesus Christ, some days by a thread, I’m less inclined to belong to an organized religion for similar reasons as Liz.
Charlie later challenges his students, along with Ellie, to “Write something honest”: “These assignments don’t matter. This course doesn’t matter. College doesn’t matter. The amazing, honest things that you wrote, they matter.” Charlie sees brutal honesty as the way to redemption, even if that brutal honesty entails utter disgust and rejection.
By the last scene, I was sobbing out loud in the last row of the theater. I haven’t cried like that since I saw Rocky III when I was eight years old, in particular the scene when Rocky mourns the death of Mickey Goldmill, his boxing trainer as well as his wise father-figure. Be warned, The Whale will indeed evoke tears, but it reminds us that there is no escaping the human condition. We are all connected like dominoes. When one falls, we all fall in our own strange way.
Carolynn Kingyens is the author of two poetry collections: Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound and the newly released Coupling, both published by Kelsay Books (Coupling is available on Amazon). In addition to poetry, Kingyens writes essays, book and film reviews, micro fiction, and short stories. Today, she lives in New York and Canada with her husband and two amazing daughters.