Warning: This article contains spoilers for the movie “The Whale.”
By Annalise Lane
Among the many popular movies that depict or thematize mental illness and/or substance abuse, a few favorites come to mind, including “Beautiful Boy,” “All the Bright Places,” and “Silver Lining’s Playbook.” Each of these films challenges its audience to map their own understanding and experiences of mental illness and addiction onto characters and settings that may look unfamiliar. And, through the inevitable instances in which expectations are not fulfilled, these movies offer important reminders of the complexity and multidimensionality of mental illnesses and the lives of the people they impact.
Though I’ve never written a review of any of these movies, when I learned of Darren Aronofsky’s acclaimed film “The Whale,” I knew I didn’t just want to watch it—I wanted to challenge myself to generate a cohesive reflection to contribute to ongoing conversations surrounding its interpretation. Whether my following thoughts offer a fresh set of ideas, a way to compare notes, or a basis for disagreement, my hope is that they encourage readers, regardless of mental health status, to experience what I felt after watching “The Whale:” a sense of self-acceptance.
Based on the play “The Whale” by Samuel D. Hunter, Aronofsky’s film captures Charlie, a father and an online college professor played by Brandon Fraser, for what turns out to be the last days of his life. As a result of weighing 600 pounds, Charlie is home-bound and limited to moving primarily between his bed, couch, kitchen, and bathroom using a walker. In addition, Charlie is living with depression that he developed after his partner, for whom he left his wife and daughter, tragically committed suicide. When we meet Charlie, his health is declining and he is working to rebuild a relationship with his teenage daughter, Ellie, after eight years of estrangement.
Unquestionably, “The Whale” portrays many of Charlie’s circumstances as overwhelmingly sad and unfortunate. It depicts the devastating impacts of the complex interplay between Charlie’s relationship with his weight and depression on his self-worth and capacity to be involved in his daughter’s life. We see how these circumstances result in Charlie binge-eating and physically hiding himself from his students by keeping his video camera off when teaching his online classes.
But what resonated with me most was the pervasiveness of Charlie’s identity as a loving father, a gay man, a mourning widow, and a nostalgic divorcee. We see him as someone who is overwhelmingly optimistic about people’s intentions, even when Ellie verbally abuses him and forces him to write her school papers. In a conversation with his friend Liz, Charlie says, “do you ever get the feeling people are incapable of not caring?”
Above all, however, we see Charlie as someone who recognizes the importance of embracing honesty by coming to terms with his truth. One of the ways this is depicted is through a handwritten essay written by eighth grade Ellie that Charlie keeps in a plastic folder by his couch. In the essay, Ellie shares her candid feelings toward the book “Moby Dick” including, “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.” It becomes apparent that Ellie’s reference to the author’s own “sad story” in her essay parallels Charlie’s life following the death of his partner and estrangement of his family. Charlie’s affinity for this essay emphasizes the importance he places on accepting this part of his story, even though it means accepting his self-perceived flaws. In doing so, Charlie realizes that his unique place in the world is defined by all of his attributes, not just some. In this way, Charlie reminds us that each of the identities we occupy is a valuable part of our story and, though self-acceptance can be challenging, there is fulfillment in embracing oneself fully.
Annalise is a second year Master of Public Health in Epidemiology student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, where her primary concentration is psychiatric epidemiology. In her free time, Annalise enjoys listening to music, running, and spending time with friends and family.