Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Whale and Love

I used to write about films a lot, and then I just stopped. But for the first time in a long time, I'm compelled to say something about a film, mainly because so many reviews I read or watched seemed to get it all wrong. I have to wait for Thomas Flight (brilliant take on The Banshees of Inisherin) or Just an Observation (check out how he explains Barry) to take a stab at it.

The Whale is about the intersection of five people's lives over five days: Charlie, an online college English teacher, Liz, his friend, Ellie, his daughter, Mary, his ex-wife, and Tom, a random missionary that happened to knock on the door as Charlie was having a heart attack. It's about religion in a way that's being missed by the reviews I've read so far. 


Charlie's partner, Alan, committed suicide years before because his parents, who run a mormon-like missionary church, convinced him he was a sinner in the eyes of God. It's significant that he stopped eating and was wasting away before he jumped off a bridge. Liz is Alan's sister. She despises the church and their parents for his death, and she remained attached to Charlie, helping him eat his feelings by bringing over meatball subs. She's trying to help him by soothing his pain with food, even when she realizes it's killing him. Tom is a missionary from this very church, of course, and Liz flips out whenever he shows up. He got wrapped up in Charlie's life when Charlie almost died when Tom first dropped by to tell him the Good News

Tom actually lied to them, though. He's not with the church at all anymore. He hated the bureaucratic, mechanical nature of their interactions, but still wanted to help people, so he decided to go door to door just talking to people and seeing if he could do something for them. One reviewer said he lost his faith, but I completely disagree. Tom - doubting Thomas - definitely still has his faith to the end. He just lost his allegiance to the church that so often misses the forest for the trees. He wants to authentially serve others.

Ellie, Charlie's teenaged daughter, is flunking out of high school. Charlie's desperate to re-connect with her despite her belligerence toward him, so he offers to re-write her papers for her and empty his bank account if she'll come over. She wrote a beautiful essay in middle school, about Moby Dick, and Charlie hung on to it as a testament to her intelligence despite her failing grades. Charlie feels remorseful for leaving her when she was 8, but he fell in love, and then her mother wouldn't let him see them again. Then mother Mary comes by to warn Charlie that their kid really is a psychopath, going out of her way to harm other kids at every chance, even posting photos that make fun of Charlie. 

So the reason I read so many reviews about this movie was to look for a reaction to one thing: Do people think Ellie really intended to help or harm Tom? She bullied him into smoking pot and photographed it, connived a confession of a theft out of him and recorded it, then sent both to his family and church. It all worked out in the end, because his family forgave him and wanted him to come home. But it could have gone the other way. I haven't found people dwelling on that question the way I have. 

Mary has been living with the day to day strife caused by her wayward teenager, but Charlie sees her as she was at 8 and from that one essay she wrote at 13. And she's beautiful and perfect, as everyone's child is when they've been gone a while. But he's persistent. He sees beauty into her until it finally starts to break down her defences. 

What absolutely destroyed me watching this movie is that they're all so desperately trying to help one another and failing. You can't always help the people you love. Sometimes you just end up bearing witness to their struggle, and that has to be enough. Charlie wanted to save Alan, but couldn't. Liz tells him Alan lived longer than he would have otherwise. The problems he had with the church didn't start with Charlie. And Liz wants to save Charlie from his inner demons, and likely has done more to help him keep going despite all the subs and buckets of chicken. Mary wants to protect Charlie from Ellie, but Charlie just wants to give everything he has to her, and his moment of salvation is when he finally connects with her. Maybe she played him, but it doesn't matter. He just loved her profoundly, as thoroughly as he possibly could, with his whole heart. Even when Mary shows her the pictures Ellie posted of him, Charlie saw her as a child that just hasn't found her way. Aren't we all! That's what transcendent agape love is all about. Judgment and condemnation and teaching lessons to one another about the right way to be is futile. It's hard for most of us to be our authentic self, but it's the only way we can connect to one another, and that's what this life is for. 

So why are some reviewers just writing about his weight??

ETA just after Fraser won the Oscar: I stumbled on this piece by the writer of the original play, Samuel D. Hunter, discussing how he wrote it. It started with his own experience as a teacher trying to connect with his students by asking them to write something honest. Then, as he started fictionalizing this experience he had, he thought, maybe this character is using his students to try to connect with his daughter - it's like a practice run for real life. Hunter is also a gay man who grew up in a fundamentalist church, and is now raising a daughter with his partner, so the play has some significant autobiographical elements. Maybe the weight was a way to make the character differ in a way that makes him even more isolated. Hunter says the play is about, "the tragedy of isolation and the redeeming value of human connection." 

Called it! 

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