Early into the film, The Whale, Charlie’s estranged daughter, Ellie, commands him to get up and walk to her. Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser, is sitting on the couch and struggles to lift the heft of his large body so that he can walk to her. In his struggle he stumbles, falling badly as Ellie slams the door and leaves.
We watch Charlie humiliated and mired in the indignity of his accident. This was the moment where the movie transforms from being voyeuristic to something far more eviscerating. I knew Charlie was going to die, but at that moment, I realized it wasn't going to happen without him paying his dues--and we were going to be there to witness them.
Without revealing too much, The Whale is a must see film for any person who identifies with The LGBTQ+ Community. The film is the adaptation of the play by Samuel Hunter and speaks to the existential trauma and indignity that so many gay men (and queer community members) often must bear in order to live our lives.
The film stars Brendan Fraser who plays Charlie an English professor who lectures online while having his video picture obscured in black. He understands that being obese is something people do not wish to see, and their revulsion is something that he does not wish to see.
Fraser’s performance in The Whale is powerful, infused with depth and compassion. His character, Charlie is physically burdened by the literal weight that holds him down. Guilt, shame, rejection, surviving suicide of a loved one, abusive religion, and the daily micro-agressions of being both gay and overweight all form the psychic weight he is meant to carry that has manifested into obesity.
There has been some backlash about whether the movie is fat-phobic. After watching the film, I do not see how this argument is valid, if anything it’s the opposite of fat phobia. The weight, his morbid obesity, is an eloquent (but brutal) metaphor for the psychic weight that is borne from trauma, the weight one who is queer must carry on the daily.
That it serves as his physical prison and underscores how trapped he feels both mentally and physically, allows the viewer to empathize with all of his unresolved trauma. It’s this conflict that is the heart and soul of the movie, one that Fraser’s performance brings to life with incredible emotion and truth.
This is what we see in The Whale, Charlie’s trauma manifested through the weight that is killing him.
His weight also underscores more personal issues with gay men, in particular, which make it a devastating but powerful metaphor. In the opening scene, we witness Charlie having his sexuality taken by morbid obesity. He becomes unable to continue a sexual experience and goes into near cardiac arrest. It’s brutal to witness but so necessary when speaking to the effects of trauma and its ability to neuter one’s sexuality. Obesity in the gay world can often be its own traumatizing experience as the rejection is unforgettable.
Charlie is racked by guilt at having abandoned his heteronormative life that included a wife and young daughter. He’s also haunted by the death of his partner who wasted away to nothing before ending his life in a suicide that obliterated Charlie.
In the movie, Charlie attempts to make peace with his young daughter Ellie (played by Sadie Sink), who has all the charm of a spitting cobra. She, too, is deeply broken, but also full of venom. Sink’s performance is strong but uneven, lacking the nuance necessary to bridge the balance between rage and vulnerability. Charlie’s ex-wife played by Samantha Morton does a far better job of vacillating between her cauterizing resentment and wounded vulnerability and is able to offer some basic compassion.
This is a heart-wrenching movie with no clean ending, and no nice and tidy resolution. It feels a great deal like real life, but its power and resonance lies in knowing that the trauma so many in our community have been forced to carry is understood in this movie. You may just walk away feeling seen, heard, and understood in this film, or even better--realizing that so many others just like you need are in need of your compassion and empathy.
The Whale is currently playing at The Jacob Burns Film Center, a Business Partner and supporter of The LOFT LGBTQ+ Community Center.