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  • Writer's pictureMaxwell Benner

The Whale

A review of A24's first miss.

We're immediately introduced to Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a 600-pound man, that lives alone and is unable to stand without assistance or properly take care of himself. Teaching a cyber English class, Charlie discusses an essay thats due in two days. Out of nowhere, a young man, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), shows up in the doorway and attempts to lecture Charlie about god. Thomas is staying in Idaho on a mission for New Life Church, an establishment that Charlie is very familiar with.

A good amount of time is strictly dedicated to showing how difficult it is for Charlie to navigate his surroundings. But a lot of scenes were attempting to shock and disgust the audience. You could argue that the scene of Charlie showering (framed in a sympathetic way) is just a demonstration of characterization, but I disagree. There's a scene where Charlie is severely upset, and to cope with this, he goes into the kitchen. He grabs a bunch of random ingredients and quickly shovels them down while groaning. He drinks mayo. I genuinely believe that this wasn't an attempt to immerse the audience into Charlie's life; it was a shock value attempt midway through an "intense" scene. Importantly, any time he physically struggles, he recites this paragraph about what the viewer assumes is his opinion on the book Moby Dick.

Moby Dick Essay

"In the first part of his book, the author, calling himself Ishmael, is in a small sea-side town and he is sharing a bed with a man named Queequeg. The author and Queequeg go to church and later set out on a ship captained by the pirate named Ahab, who is missing a leg, and very much wants to kill the whale which is named Moby Dick, and which is white. In the course of the book, the pirate Ahab encounters many hardships. His entire life is set around trying to kill a certain whale. I think this is sad because this whale doesn’t have any emotions, and doesn’t know how bad Ahab wants to kill him. He’s just a poor big animal. And I feel bad for Ahab as well, because he thinks that his life will be better if he can kill this whale, but in reality it won’t help him at all. I was very saddened by this book, and I felt many emotions for the characters. And I felt saddest of all when I read the boring chapters that were only descriptions of whales, because I knew that the author was just trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while. This book made me think about my own life, and then it made me feel glad for my-"

Some time passes and were introduced to Charlie's one and only friend, Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse. She regularly takes care of him and cleans up around the apartment. She insists that Charlie needs to go to a hospital or he's going to die. Charlie over and over again persists that he doesn't want to get help. The film subtly mentions Charlie's past choice of leaving his wife Mary (Samantha Morton) and his 8-year-old daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) for his now ex-partner Alan. It’s clear that he deeply regrets some aspects of his past and wants to reconnect with his daughter. Liz advises him not to. Regardless, Charlie reaches out to (sixteen-year-old) Ellie, inviting her over. She reluctantly comes but immediately it's very clear that her only motivation was to share her hatred for her Dad directly to him. Her demeanor is emotionally shut off while simultaneously angry. She acted like how I feel someone in her position would in real life, nothing out of the ordinary. Charlie desperately tries to connect with her, asking how she's doing. He says how he's concerned about her failing out of school. She immediately fights back. Ellie is dangerously close to failing her English class and a major essay on Moby Dick is her last chance to pass. She ignores him entirely. Charlie desperately offers to pay her and write her English essay, and in return, she would spend time with him every so often. She agrees. Without the knowledge of Mary or Liz, Ellie consistently visits Charlie.

Thomas persistently visits Charlie, still trying to get him to connect with god. Liz finds out about this and is infuriated. She explains (to Thomas) that Charlie's partner / her brother Alan when he came out was exiled from New Life Church. Not soon after, Alan took his life. Charlie developed severe overeating habits to cope with Alan's death. This scene, although meant to be sentimental, was written so awkwardly that it was difficult to sympathize with. My dad during this scene turned to me and said, "Wow, this actress is terrible." He later corrected himself saying, "Nevermind. She's good. It's just terrible writing."

Up until this point, I genuinely was ready to give a standing ovation. It wowed me. Things then went south.

Reasonably being around her father has triggered Ellie to become more and more enraged. Unreasonably, Ellie's behavior feels like someone's idea of a rebellious teen but they've never met anyone in their life. The one instance, leading up to the peak conflict, the scene where Ellie threatens Thomas. After slipping sleeping pills into Charlie's sandwich, she makes Thomas sit down and hands him marijuana. She tells him to smoke it, and if he doesn't she’ll tell everyone that he abused her. It's extremely hard for me to believe that Ellie (who's only been set up to look like your average teen with parental issues) wields that level of confidence, selfishness, and disregard for attempted murder - to do this. Her motivation in this scene is extremely hard to believe. Dramas of course like to exaggerate things while proposing them as real-world issues, but this is absurd. Thomas ends up complying, and she maniacally sorta just stares at him in weird silence.

This scene ends with Thomas locking himself in a bedroom and Ellie talking to him through the door. Thomas confesses that he didn't come to Idaho on a mission trip for New Life. He actually stole money from his parents and church, did drugs, misbehaved, and ran away. Ellie records all of this and sends it to someone in Thomas’s church. In the end, Thomas’s family forgives him and he goes back home. Ellie recording the conversation and sending it out is slightly more believable, but I still don't understand why she wants to hurt Thomas so desperately. She’s hurt so she wants other people to hurt but why specifically Thomas? This section of the film took a normal, angsty emotionally disturbed teen and made her somewhat of a supervillain.

Eventually, Liz finds Charlie passed out and takes care of him, assessing that he truly could’ve died. Mary (Charlie's ex-wife) shows up at the apartment for the first time and scolds Ellie much more lightly than she should. Ellie and Liz are asked to leave so Mary and Charlie can have a very awkward conversation. It's awkward in the sense that the flow of emotion has absolutely no consistency. One moment they're crying together, mourning their marriage, and the next moment they're furiously screaming at each other. This switches back and forth; energy constantly dipping and rising. I feel the writer couldn't decide whether this scene should be sad or excitingly angry. It was nauseating. I so vividly remember having the movie equivalent of seasickness.

The last scene concludes with Charlie alone with Ellie. The essay Charlie gave her made her fail. Ellie confronts him, and we find out that the essay was written by Ellie when she was in middle school. Charlie absolutely adored it and thought that she would pass. He insists that the essay is authentically Ellie and she should embrace it. Yet again, nauseatingly, Ellie and Charlie's fight switches between very low energy and very very high energy. One second Ellie is grabbing her things to leave, then she's in the dining room, then she's back at the door, and now she's sitting in the living room. He gives this emotional speech about his love for her Moby Dick essay, and she ignores it. For the last time, she packs up and stops herself in the doorway before running off. She demands that Charlie has to walk over to her without any assistance; something that Charlie has still been unable to do the entire film. As she reads the essay, he struggles but successfully meets Ellie in the middle of the room. Abruptly, a white light shines and a shot of Charlie's feet lifting up into the air is shown. He moans. The end. I wish I could properly exaggerate how absolutely out of nowhere the last shot was. I didn't expect it at all.

The Whale isn't entirely a bad movie. It has some good ideas. I really liked the first half, but the second half ruined everything for me. Regardless, the core concept of a man being stuck in his home alone longing for connection with his daughter while still mourning the death of his partner is very engaging. I wanted to know more. The makeup artists did an excellent job of making Brendan into Charlie. Also, narratively, they had a couple of things going on. I'd say that's a good thing, but they didn't succeed in a lot of them. Leaving the theater, the only character that I felt somewhat bad for was Liz. She had to slowly watch her friend basically kill himself because he refused to change or get help. Other than that very minimal caring for Liz, I didn't care about anything in the story nor did I care about any of the characters. Every actor did really well, especially Brendan Fraser. Terrible movie, but a great opportunity for Fraser to show off his talent. You can tell these actors are talented because they still gave a great performance with a juvenile script. In the end, Brendan Fraser is awesome, and A24 made their first mediocre movie.

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