How Aronofsky’s ‘The Whale’ is an Empowering Story About Honesty
by Alex Billington
December 28, 2022
There’s a value that seems to be becoming rarer and rare these days – honesty. Yes, it’s scary, yes, it can be painful, but it’s a necessary and important part of humanity. They even make fun of this in Interstellar, with TARS making a joke about how his honesty setting is too high because, “Absolute honesty isn’t always the most diplomatic nor the safest form of communication with emotional beings.” One of my Top 10 films of the year is Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, which I already reviewed out of the Venice Film Festival a few months ago. I recently watched the film again for a second time and it really struck me even more this time around – The Whale is about honesty above all else. It’s not really about being fat or the struggles of being overweight, it’s about depression and disconnection and how being dishonest put everyone in the situation they’re in at this moment. The film is about an obese man named Charlie who attempts to reconnect with his daughter over the course of a week, with a very emotional finale where he literally yells about being honest.
Note: spoilers from now on discussing The Whale. The film is adapted from a stage play and feels just like one. It’s set entirely in one apartment, where Charlie lives, and all of the other characters come there and interact with him. Charlie, played perfectly by Brendan Fraser in an awards-worthy role, is learning to be more honest with himself after experiencing so much of phoniness in his past. We learn at one point that he left his wife and his daughter behind to start a relationship with a man, which hurt them both. This was his first major step into being honest with his sexuality, and his romantic interests led him to be with a person that truly loved him. Unfortunately his partner’s religious beliefs and conflicts within himself contributed to his death. That left Charlie in ruins and his sadness & depression made him self-medicate with food, which is now his great source of comfort and relief. This is the reason why he looks the way he does, and he knows this, but he’s also unable to break from this addiction anymore and doesn’t seem to care. Instead, he focuses on nurturing kindness and positivity with the few people left around him, hoping it will make a difference.
The film then introduces Sadie Sink as his teenage daughter Ellie. She is also being dishonest with herself and her emotions, caught up in the typical teenage angst of feeling disconnected from everyone. She must learn to be express her feelings properly, and Charlie senses this in her, recognizing that love and support is what she needs the most. Then there is Ty Simpkins as Thomas, a religious boy from New Life Church who appears on his doorstep as a missionary hoping to convert him. Later on we learn that all of this is a lie, too, and he doesn’t want to face who he is, how he really feels, what he’s doing there, or how he needs to proceed to make amends in his life. There’s also Charlie’s ex-wife, Mary, played by Samantha Morton, who is in a few scenes. Ellie reminds Charlie she’s only able to be honest and be “happy” when she’s drinking, which is what helps Mary have a nice moment of reconciliation with Charlie near the end of the film. The only honest person in Charlie’s world is Liz, played by the incomparable Hong Chau. There’s also Dan The Pizza Man, but Charlie can’t establish a real connection with him because he’s scared of showing himself to anyone else.
Liz is a vitally important character in this story, and Hong Chau humbly takes on this role with one of her career-best performances so far. Everyone who watches The Whale talks about how much they admire her in this, even if they don’t like the rest of the film. It’s because her character Liz is the most honest. She’s the only one who not only makes fun of Charlie about his weight, about his situation, about anything he’s thinking, but she’s also direct with him about his health as an obese man on the verge of death. They’re good friends because they have a deep connection which is so pure and raw that Charlie & Liz both appreciate it and are subconsciously intertwined in this way. She wants him to lose weight and get healthy, but she also respects his choices and his way of living. She just loves him for who he is, regardless of how he looks or the choices he makes, and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s another emotional core of this film that brings so much life to the story. Being open & vulnerable with each other is the foundation of sincere human relationships.
Throughout the film, Charlie connects virtually to an online class to teach writing to college students. He’s never really impressed with any of their work and eventually, in an emotional outburst, exclaims he would rather hear something honest from them for once. This moment hit me harder than any others in the film because I sense this regularly with so much writing I encounter out there. Who cares about style and form and perfect writing if you can’t even be honest in what you’re saying? Just like with all art, being truthful and expressing whatever’s inside of you is more important than how the art looks, or how nicely it’s painted. The same goes with writing… It’s almost as if Darren Aronofsky was tired of reading so many nicely written yet superficially negative reviews of his films, when he’d prefer that critics just be honest. Just say it, blurt it out. I’m right there with him. So much writing I come across seems to be more obsessed with how “good” the writing is while saying nothing of substance, sounding phony and shallow. Where is the honesty? Why are we all afraid of it? Yes it can hurt and sting but that’s a part of how we heal and grow as social creatures.
It’s possible that honesty can be perilous, which is why TARS says it’s not “the safest form of communication with emotional beings.” But we can’t hide from the truth forever. This is a lesson we all must learn. Charlie learns this, but so do Ellie and Mary. There are other examples of this in other great films – in Pixar’s Inside Out, Riley tries to hide her sadness and pretend she’s not angry and upset about moving, which just makes everything worse. Only when she learns to let that sadness show does she realize how important anger and sadness are to connecting us together. In The Whale, Charlie reads out a few of his writing students’ honest responses and they’re all so sad and depressing. There isn’t enough time in the film for him to address this, but it’s obvious the point being made is that deep down we’re all lonely, we all feel bad about ourselves, and instead of silently wallowing in that misery, expressing that is a vital aspect of bringing people together. You can’t start to solve any problem until you admit the problem exists. It may be hard but working on that is imperative. Even Charlie recognizes this truth, it’s part of his final outcry to Ellie before he meets his maker.
I’ve seen some complaints saying the “Moby Dick” essay that Charlie reads over and over, which it’s revealed is written by his daughter, is not very well written and he is a bad English teacher. Perhaps true, but that’s irrelevant. It was written by Ellie when she was in 8th grade, it’s not supposed to be perfect writing, but it’s honest. It’s real. She complains about the book, she laments how boring and dull so much of it is, until she realizes Herman Melville’s passages about the whales are him expressing his own loneliness and torments, too. This is why Charlie loves this essay and why it means so much to him. That spoke to him deep down. At the time the book was published, Melville wasn’t a very successful writer. His own truth can be found in his writing, and that’s more important, even if “Moby Dick” is boring. This is what Charlie is trying to teach all of us – beyond the grave, beyond the film – that we’re all lonely people and being direct about what makes us sad is necessary to heal us and reconnect. It’s the right path to take, no matter how tough it might seem.
Aronofsky’s The Whale is ultimately not really a film about being a fat guy who can’t stand up. Anyone that watches and only sees it in that way and can only judge it by the way it portrays this character is interpreting the film incorrectly. His sadness and his struggles have turned him into this person on the outside, but deep within he has maintained his beguiling kindness and integrity. This is what makes him the hero of the story. As with any good film, it’s a story about him realizing just before it’s too late that he needs to express how he really feels and try to remind those he loves how beautiful they actually are. He repeats “you’re amazing” to Ellie over and over because it’s true, not because it’s some dumb thing he just needs to say. She needs to be honest with herself, too, and realize it is true. I believe every last one of us needs to understand how much truthfulness can actually make the world better. Being afraid of this pushes us further apart. I try to live in an open and honest way, spending my time being clear rather than never saying what I really mean. Let The Whale speak deeply to your soul, too. We only have a short life to live – so let’s be honest while we still can.