Before I can go any further, I need to tell you a bit of my own family history. I grew up with an amazing, loving father. He discovered he had a brain aneurysm in his temporal lobe, behind his eye when I was twelve and my brother eight years old. My father was only forty-four years old when he had his first stroke. One of many that would have him in and out of the hospital for years. The brain aneurysm, however, wasn’t all to blame. My father had been a lifelong smoker, forced to quit his four pack a day habit when he fell ill. He was also overweight. He was always kind of a husky kid, so early on, nobody really thought anything of it, I think. He was a pretty agile guy when it came to wrangling his two kids. Sometimes, I think, though, that one of the adults in my life had to see something like this coming. He nearly died. He was in a coma for a while. He ended up having to go to a rehabilitation center to learn how to walk again, and hold a fork, and hold a cup, and brush his teeth. He had to learn how to function again.
All the while, his marriage to my mother was falling apart. Turns out she didn’t handle near-death and illnesses of loved ones very well. She had an affair with a man that she worked with, while my father was in the hospital and while I was home, making sure to feed my younger brother after school. Needless to say, once my father was “better” and my parents split, my brother and I chose to stay with our father. And our mother didn’t put up a fight, although she probably told her friends at the time that she did.
So, my brother and I were raised full time by our dad. And he was the best dad there was, I swear. By no means was he perfect, but he tried his absolute best.
At one point, early on, he was on track with his weight loss. He had to lose weight for the sake of his knees, for the sake of his feet, for the sake of his lungs, for the sake of his heart. At his heaviest, he was just over 400 pounds, standing 6 foot 2 inches. He was on the right track for a while. My brother and I were constantly trying to motivate him. We would go to visit our grandmother, his mom, all together, and he would walk around her block while we all swam in the pool in the summer. He was eating well; healthy, confident, happy.
But, somewhere along the way he got sick again. Had another stroke, had a lung collapse, had his life pulled out from underneath him again.
My mother didn’t help at the time. I think she really messed him up, mentally, when she tried to get back together with him at one point when I was in college. The truth of the matter was that she was in terrible debt, and had no money. She always had this weird notion that my father got more money from disability than he really did. I told her to her face that he deserves better than her. I told her that he was too good for her and that was that. (Needless to say, my relationship with her has been nonexistent for years now. Although she still reaches out to my brother, all the while never acknowledging what happened).
After a long battle with his health, my father passed away in September of 2020 from a heart attack that was a result of congestive heart failure.
The Whale, a film by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream; Black Swan), is the story of a man named Charlie, a reclusive 600-pound English teacher, and his attempt to reconnect with the daughter he left eight years prior, when she was eight years old. Thankfully, there is enough difference between my real life and this story that I can separate the two. However, there are little things in this film, little moments that I couldn’t separate. Because they turned out to be universal in a weird way. Those were the moments I would cry while watching the film. Ellie moving the walker out of the way, asking him to walk without it, the grab arm Charlie would use, being careful to not light anything around him due to the oxygen tank and hose, the refusal to go to the hospital when he needed it most. Those moments hit me the hardest. But, there was enough difference that I could pull myself out of my own head while watching the film and for that, I am thankful.
I want to address the fact that Brendan Fraser is dressed in a fat suit and how it comes off on film. Prior to seeing the film, I read articles from people, talking about how the portrayal “mocks, stigmatizes and dehumanizes” fat people. I went in scared and expecting to see these things on film, crystal clear, but I did not see them. I saw an angry daughter who ultimately did not want to see her father die because of his own overwhelming guilt over his partner’s death. A death that was a result of extreme religious guilt and a love of another man. I saw the care and frustration in Liz at Charlie’s refusal to go to the hospital. I saw the anger reflected in every single person’s eyes. I never once felt any kind of mocking. I only felt a deep love in how this story was portrayed. And, as far as how the title relates to the film, not once did I get the feeling that it was in direct reference to Charlie and his size (as I imagine so many people think it is). Instead, it’s a reference for Charlie’s search for truth in the world, much like what the whale symbolizes in the story of Moby Dick, a story that heavily influences this one in the form of “the most honest essay he’s every read”, an essay written by his daughter when she was in eighth grade.
Written by Samuel D. Hunter, and based on his stage play of the same name, The Whale incorporates themes of religion and religious guilt, family and acceptance, sexuality, eating disorders, remorse, the list goes on. So much thought went into this film, both from a writing standpoint and a full filmmaking standpoint. Having Charlie live on the second floor, so not only does he feel trapped in his body but he is physically trapped in his apartment, as well. The wheelchair he receives keeps him just outside his shared bedroom with Alan. It keeps him just outside what his life once was. And there’s things like that sprinkled throughout the entire film.
With Charlie’s binge eating disorder, I didn’t feel the film mocked the way he was eating. I experienced heartbreak and empathy with the character in those moments. Knowing he’s doing this because it’s what’s within his control. Also, the irony that Charlie is struggling with a binge eating disorder that caused his weight to become unmanageable and the fact that his partner died of starvation due to religious guilt of being in a relationship with a member of the same sex is not lost on me.
I was hopeful that the film would end on a bittersweet note and I am happy to report that it does. I won’t say exactly how. I’ll save that for you to experience yourself. Everybody was a strong player in the film, however the two that were exceptional were Sadie Sink as Charlie’s estranged troubled daughter Ellie, Hong Chau as Liz, one of Charlie’s only friends, who happens to be a nurse as well as the sister of his deceased partner. And then there’s Brendan Fraser who played Charlie with such heart and understanding and positivity and sympathy. “I need to know that I’ve done one thing right in my life” Talk about a comeback.