TIFF Film Review: The Whale

Brendan Fraser, Darren Aronofsky, and a solid supporting cast create a well-rounded character study of emotional honesty.

By Sean Blanford

“It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.” This quote is admirable because, in the context of the film, you want to leave the audience with something to remember to keep that memory etched in their brains for days, weeks, or months afterward. But what if you started strong and finished stronger? Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, The Whale, begins with a look into the life of an online college teacher suffering from obesity and congestive heart failure (Brendan Fraser). It finishes with one of the best third acts of not only 2022 but of the last decade. To only look at the film for what it is at face value is doing a grave disservice to the overall story of the film: one of doing whatever it takes to catch your white whale.

The film takes place in one location, the second-floor apartment of Charlie (Fraser), and we first meet him not by his appearance but by his voice. He is the only darkened square in the digital classroom, one of the students accidentally sending a public message wondering why Charlie’s laptop camera isn’t fixed. Moments later, we see Charlie in the flesh for the first time, in a moment of self-gratification before having a health incident. If not for the quick actions of Thomas, a young man who happens to be there to spread the good word (Ty Simpkins) but ends up being a savior at the moment by reading an essay to Charlie to ease his pain. Charlie knows his end is close and doesn’t want to go to the hospital because he doesn’t have health insurance, amongst other reasons, instead relying on at-home care from his friend Liz (Hong Chau). Liz is blunt with Charlie and knows with his high blood pressure and CHF, he more than likely won’t make it to the end of the week.

As the days tick off the bottom of the screen, the story becomes more encompassing. We are introduced to Charlie’s daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), a high schooler struggling to pass her English course and knows that Charlie could be a way to get her to give her class. She is aggressive toward Charlie because she resents him for how he left their family to start a same-sex relationship with one of his former night school students. Instead of asking for help, her way is to have Charlie write them for her, and she exploits his physical appearance.

Charlie is not a character we are supposed to sympathize with just because of his stature. The screenplay written by Samuel D. Hunter (who plays the film is based)es an immaculate job of flushing out everyone’s motivations without using exposition dumps. Each of the four central characters has a reason to be where they are when they arrive at Charlie’s home, as well as having a reason to dislike each other. It’s not in a way that is sheer hatred, but more that they feel them being there only makes Charlie’s life more miserable than it needs to be. One example of this introduced early in the film is Liz blaming the church Thomas is a part of for having a hand in the death of Charlie’s boyfriend, which had a hand in his dramatic weight gain.

The final twenty minutes is where all the magic happens. From the time we are introduced to Charlie’s ex-wife (Samantha Morton) to when the credits roll, the ball of twine begins to unroll, with each subsequent scene and conversation being much more devastating than the one that came before it. Through it all, Charlie is never one who has asked for the pity of others one single time. Instead, he asks his students, as well as Ellie, to write something brutally honest no matter what it is. This is the crux of what the entire story is: digging down deep in yourself to ask the hard questions and not only being truthful with yourself but accepting the truths of those around you. This is when you get what you’re genuinely looking for.

If you’re reading this review, you already know about the six-minute standing ovation Brendan Fraser received at Venice. Whatever stock you take into things like that, or if you’re one to constantly discuss awards odds for every potential contender that comes out in the next couple of months, that will be for you to decide. Whatever they get from the acting, writing, and production sides will be well-deserved. Overall, The Whale is a tough watch for the obvious reasons of obesity and depression, but also for how one’s actions affect those around you. I will personally watch this film one more time but not again any time soon, not because I question the quality of the film but how much it affected me. If this sounds like something you feel you can handle, you will be in store for one of the best films of 2022.

Grade: 4.75/5 (A)

The Whale had its Toronto International Film Festival premiere on September 11th and will be released on December 9th from A24 in the United States.

Author: Sean Blanford

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