Whale It tells the story of a reclusive English teacher who is trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter.
It is the latest work from director Darren Aronofsky – best known for his blockbusters wrestler And the black Swan, As well as earlier festival darlings with me And the Requiem for a dream- Based on the play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter (who also wrote the script).
BTW, if you don’t want to know anymore, go to the end for TL; DR. Otherwise, let’s get into it!
yes. So, here’s the setup…
Inspired by Hunter’s personal experiences and struggles, Whale It follows the story of Charlie (Fraser), a 600-pound man suffering from depression who lives in near isolation in rural Idaho.
Charlie spends most of his days working (teaching online essay writing classes), watching TV, reading, or feeling sad when he thinks about the past. Relatable, right?
The only person still close to Charlie is his longtime best friend who is now caring for him, Liz (played wonderfully by Hong Zhao), who comes over regularly to check on Charlie’s vitals and bring food, medical supplies, or other miscellaneous items.
Although their relationship is truly loving, Liz can be blunt and scolding at times. After all, she’s a woman with a haunted past and trauma that connects her to Charlie, and she’s terribly afraid of reliving that trauma. The problem is that Charlie also has congenital heart failure and refuses to go to the hospital. Therefore, his days are numbered.
One day, a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) knocks on Charlie’s door. After getting over their deeply awkward first meeting, Thomas decides to make it his mission to “save” Charlie’s soul. See, Thomas is from a cult-like group called New Life, which Charlie is unfortunately all too familiar with. But being a kind and outgoing person, Charlie welcomes Thomas into his life (much to Liz’s dismay).
Although willing to chat up Thomas, Charlie actually has no interest in being “saved” – he’s read the Bible (twice) and finds it unfair – in fact, he chooses not to be “saved” (spirit or otherwise) by any person.
Charlie’s main focus in the time he has left is making sure his daughter, Ellie, will be okay. The problem is that Eli (Sadie Sink) and Charlie are estranged. And when you meet her, you will understand why.
At first, Ellie appears as a typical grumpy teenager. But as the story progresses, we realize that the intensity of her anger runs so deep that it has turned her into a truly and deeply unhappy person. She is very comfortable hurling incredibly swearing words at everyone, especially Charlie, who is nothing but nice to her. Even her mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), calls her a “horror.”
Although Mary thinks her daughter is evil, Charlie – always the optimist – doesn’t see it that way. He has incredible hope for her. So, he reaches out to Ellie, whom he hasn’t seen in nine years, and tries to help her with her homework. Specifically with (what next?!) writing her article.
You see, one of Charlie’s favorite things is an article Ellie wrote about Moby Dick or the whale when she was a little girl. And there is a line from her essay that Charlie will repeat, especially in moments of compulsion, to bring himself comfort. Part of it says: “The writer is just trying to save us from his sad story.” Ellie’s very clever response to Herman Melville’s “boring” chapters on whales is, as you’ll learn, what keeps Charlie upbeat.
In fact, when the layers of the story are peeled back, we realize Ellie’s essay is the real pivot. And the reward at the end will probably make you cry.
Now, since the movie is based on a play (and also because it was shot during COVID), you should know that Whale Feels very contained. The movie takes place entirely in (or outside) Charlie’s apartment. It’s also presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which you obviously don’t see very often these days, but that choice certainly adds to the confined situation Charlie is in.
But the real highlight of the movie is Fraser’s performance. Aside from the four hours of rigorous make-up application Fraser went through every morning (a fact, you may have heard, has triggered some controversy Which Fraser himself owns directed multiple times), Fraser has clearly taken on one of the most challenging roles of his career.
It’s been such a hot moment since Fraser took on such a dramatic role, and it’s so great to see him return to that kind of role. And what he brings to Charlie is a sense of vulnerability, earnestness, and an honesty that will make you feel so good. Regardless of people’s personal casting preferences, there’s no doubt Fraser knocked this guy out of the park and he’ll be 1,000% a frontrunner during award season.
An extra shout must be given to Chau for her equally great portrayal of Liz. Like flipping a switch, she can go from affectionate to furious in a split second, and it’s impressive to watch. Chau and Fraser’s onscreen chemistry is so natural, you’d think these two were BFFs for years.
Inclusive, Whale It’s definitely the most pared-down Aronofsky movie in a while (maybe ever), and it feels closer to it wrestler or black Swan In terms of following a self-destructive lone hero. And honestly, it’s such a relief to see Aronofsky heading back in that direction (I wasn’t a fan of the mother! or Noah). We hope he keeps up.
If I had any complaints, it’s that the movie loses steam somewhere in the middle and can sometimes feel monotonous, watching scene after scene with two talking heads (as is often the case with movies based on plays). Despite these minor flaws, though, you’ll be glad you stuck with it till the end when all is said and done – 8/10, recommend!
Whale It opens in Los Angeles and New York today, Dec. 9, and nationwide on Dec. 21. You can watch the trailer here:
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