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The Whale Review: A Personal Relfection

Photo Credit: A24

I’ve sat with Darren Aronofsky’s latest for hours, trying to put my finger on just how and why this affected me. And considering the backlash it’s received, it’s led to some really deep examination.

It’s rare that I address outside critics’ views but in this circumstance — and considering the very personal if not relatable nature of the subject matter for many — it feels warranted. Additionally, I feel in step with its playwright and screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter — Everyone’s feelings and reactions to the film are valid, as are their experiences with the film relating to their world.

Here’s where I fit in:

In the past six months, I’ve lost my dad and my closest aunt who helped raise me with my divorced mom for over two decades. The latter was through a long journey with cancer, while my aunt’s passing was unexpected.

Watching Brendan Fraser’s performance as Charlie, a 600-plus pound man, I saw both of those key figures in my life.

My Aunt

Charlie exists- [she] was my confidant.

Just as Charlie refuses to show his face to his online class, my aunt didn’t like her picture being taken. Over the last decade, she may have allowed herself to be filmed two times. When her company transitioned to work-from-home, she was able to hole herself into her room with no one but my mom (with whom she shared the house I grew up) to see her on a daily basis in parallel with Charlie. 

And with a paralyzing fear of COVID considering her underlying health conditions that were only exacerbated in recent years, her interaction with the outside world was limited to curbside groceries- just as Charlie refuses to let anyone in his apartment except Liz (played by a remarkable Hong Chau.)

What led my aunt to her size is far different from Charlie, but she had heartbreak of her own that she cured through food and isolation. As much as Charlie is — described as such by Hunter no less — “vibrant, incredibly joyful, and is loving and deeply intelligent,” there is a sliver of despair behind Fraser’s performance that chilled me, seeing just how much Charlie is a reflection of someone so influential in my life.

Anyone that met my aunt would describe her the same way as Hunter does Charlie. She was the sweetest, most caring human I’ve ever known. But underneath all those free car rides she’d give people in the winter, the care packages she’d send coworkers that were having a tough time, or sacrificing her body to shovel the snow so my mom wouldn’t have to risk her heart issues, there was that same despair that I see in Charlie.

It’s quickly established that his motivation in life is to provide for his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) whom he left when she was eight as he divorced her mom (Samantha Morton.) And as he sees his health reach a terminal point, his desire to connect with her and provide her a better world with his life savings reaches a level of despair.

As cliche as this may seem, Ellie is the light in his life (this is perhaps physically manifested at the end), and giving her a new life through his inevitable death is the “one thing right” that he so desperately cries in one of the show-stopping moments from cinematographer Matthew Libathique. It’s the same despair that lived within my aunt.

In this same way, my aunt who was childless saw my mom and me as her light. At my grandmother’s deathbed before I was born, she asked her to make sure my mom was always taken care of. This was a burden my aunt carried for her whole life- my mother’s guardian angel. Even through all of their disagreements, like Ellie’s resentment, my mom (and by extension me) was always at the center of my aunt’s motivations.

Through the years, this became more and more apparent to me. So when Charlie so crushingly discusses his love for Ellie, my aunt was seen (and on a physical note, I’ve seen some complaints about the fat suit and makeup, but I will just say it is all too accurate to me, right down to the ankles.) This person that other viewers see as a caricature, is entirely real with all too meaningful feelings and pain.

My Dad

For almost every bit of Charlie that I didn’t see in my aunt, I saw my dad.

We were not very close. After my parents separated before I was in kindergarten, my mom got full custody of me. And over the years, resentment grew toward him for not providing for me as I’d see in movies. Sure, compared to Ellie, I saw my dad more since my mom allowed visitations, but that was the limit of our relationship for years.

Yet, to him, I was the world. He was infinitely proud of me for going to college, starting a good career, and doing things he never could. Still, the bond was lopsided. Unlike Ellie, I grew up to be who I am in spite of him, not with him. 

Charlie’s distance from Ellie which grew through the years along with his curiosity about her life is yet another bullseye from Hunter and Aronofsky. There are logical explanations thrown in the script about his absence being further created by Ellie’s mom, but psychologically, Charlie’s dichotomous love and missed presence are natural and heartbreaking.


As much as The Whale is about Charlie and he’s rarely out of frame, Aronofsky seems just as infatuated with those around him — providing a mirror for myself.

In Liz, we find an enabler that is slowly killing the love of her brother’s life but is also his buoy, balancing her dealt damage with healthcare and friendship.

In Ellie, is a resentful child until Aronofsky pulls out the rug on her exit to completely re-contextualize her feelings and dreams. Sink’s performance is purposefully one-note, living in a pool of angst just to pull off that final sequence that brings Ellie to an all too confusing realization.

And Thomas, a missionary, isn’t trying to physically but spiritually save Charlie only to discover he was searching for his own salvation just as someone might discover when they’re trying to “fix” an obese person’s health. And for all that I’ve glowed about already, the biblical implications of Thomas and film’s location in a fundamentalist hotbed, are equally intriguing.

It’s all of these pillars that hold the film up for Fraser to turn out a generational performance. 

Early in the film, Charlie tells his students to really show themselves and truth in their writing: It will make their arguments more meaningful. And for The Whale, Aronofsky and Hunter are not out to make “fat porn” nor wag their fingers at a monster. They’re searching for deeper truths that its characters are all powered by love, and at times, blinded by that ambition and in turn cause more harm than we know. And in the end, that might be all we can do.

The Whale is currently playing in theaters and is available on VOD.


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