The Whale addresses the extent to which depression can impact physical health.

5 May 2023 / by Jordyn Lalonde

Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is a sad reminder of the toll depression can take on someone and how damaging that can be for their mental and physical health. The themes of self-neglect, love, grief, and redemption are present through the perspective of a severely obese man as he tries to regain the love of his estranged daughter whom he left behind in his past life. It is a recreation of the 2012 theatrical play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. The film stars Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, and Samantha Morton, and premiered at TIFF on September 11th, 2022.

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a severely obese middle-aged  professor who teaches English to his students remotely from home. He isolates himself in his home, the sole setting for the duration of the film, hiding his obese state from the outside world and refusing to go to the hospital to seek help. He is cared for by his nurse friend, Liz (Hong Chau), the sister of his deceased partner Alan. Alan’s parents and community were not accepting of his homosexuality, and his battle with depression resulted in eating and sleeping disorders, leading to his suicide. After Alan’s death, Charlie fell into a deep depression and began over-eating, which led to his severe obesity.

At the film’s beginning, a teenage boy named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) visits Charlie’s house as a church missionary. Charlie calls him inside when he starts to have a heart attack, having him read an essay about Moby Dick written by a student we later find out was his daughter. After a check-in with Liz, Charlie discovers he is dying. He wants to tie up loose ends and reaches out to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). Ellie visits him, witnesses his state and expresses disgust with who he has become. Wanting to keep this relationship with his daughter, Charlie makes a deal with her that if she comes and visits him, he will pay her and complete her English homework.

Eventually, Charlie’s ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) finds out their daughter Ellie has secretly been visiting Charlie. Mary confronts him at his home and discovers his shockingly obese state. With this discovery, they become cordial, and she offers support. At this point, we learn that all the characters are dealing with their own struggles. Thomas is a runaway who feels disconnected from his family because of his rebellious side. Ellie has no friends and is doing poorly in school. Mary struggles with Ellie, her rebellious tendencies, and the divorce, with which she copes using alcohol and prescription pills. Liz still deals with the loss of her brother and worries about losing Charlie.

The Whale was not what I initially expected, as all the reviews I had read indicated that it was an unfortunate and heartfelt film that made viewers empathize with Charlie. Still, I initially didn’t feel as sympathetic as I should have. Charlie was not the best person, as he cheated on his wife with one of his students, Alan, and left his wife and daughter to pursue happiness with him. My feelings for Charlie began to shift when it was revealed that Alan’s suicide was the reason for his significant binge eating, his way of coping with his severe depression. I also liked the idea of him rekindling his relationship with his daughter, his way of redeeming his past. However, I found his stubborn attitude toward getting help and improving his health ridiculous. We learn that his reasoning was to give the money he would spend on healthcare to Ellie, which is a nice gesture, but in the long run, his health and presence likely would have benefitted her far more.

I found Thomas an unnecessary character, bringing little real significance to the storyline. His character’s sole purpose was to show Charlie that God could save him. Stemming from those conversations, we also learn that one local church’s unaccepting attitude toward Alan drove his depression and, eventually, Charlie’s disorder. Still, there were many more straightforward ways to express this without introducing Thomas.

With this being said, the film showed how extreme depression can affect one’s life through eating disorders, insecurity, and isolation. I would have thought it more beneficial to viewers, especially those struggling with similar issues, to show Charlie getting the help he needed and to indicate that it is possible to get better despite the extreme circumstances.

The setting worked immensely well for its blandness, forcing the other characters to interact with him within his off-putting environment. The film-specific score by Rob Simonsen uses song titles, such as “Life Boat,” “Storm Approaching,” and “Full Sail,” which encapsulate the oceanic elements of the film’s title. Emphasizing the story of a man lost at sea, the book Moby Dick by Herman Melville is consistently referenced throughout the film whenever Charlie reads Ellie’s essay about it. In this essay, she discusses how the whales distract from the author’s sad life, which parallels her feelings about Charlie. In Moby Dick, the whaling ship captain, Ahab, who had lost his leg to a great whale, sails off to seek revenge but is eventually killed by the whale instead, as the enormous mammal cannot be tamed. Referring back to The Whale, it appears that Charlie’s depression and grief of Alan are parallel to Ahab’s careless desire for revenge. Like Ahab, Charlie cannot get past Alan’s death as he avoids their bedroom, avoids getting help, and avoids outside contact, and this is what winds up killing him.

As a film, The Whale seeks empathy from the viewers, presenting the possibility of redemption, the reconciliation of relationships, the pursuit of happiness, and the resolution of past mistakes. As an audience, it shows our need to be more selfless, to help identify and connect with people by acknowledging their  struggles. It also indicates how everyone’s experience differs, so this film is vital in showing one potential outcome for a struggling  individual.

The Whale was released in Canada on December 21st, 2022 and is available to buy to watch on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play and Youtube.