By Dr. Ian Patton, Director of Advocacy and Public Engagement for Obesity Canada
In January of 2021 Obesity Canada was approached by our colleagues at Obesity Action Coalition who asked if I would be open to help with a project related to an upcoming feature film. In my years with Obesity Canada, as a patient advocate and through my work, I often get asked to speak to the media, present in front of large crowds and share my experiences, but this was something a bit different. It was explained that the film was an adaptation of a play called The Whale, about a reclusive man with severe obesity and trauma, trying to reconnect with his daughter in his final days. I was told that they wanted the director and lead actor to hear from some obesity advocates, and have us share our experiences and talk with us about some of the realities of living with obesity.
When I learned that that director was none other than Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) and the lead actor was Brendan Fraser (The Mummy, Encino Man), I would be lying if I said I was not shocked and a little nervous. Through these consultations, I spoke with Darren and Brendan, had separate calls with someone from the props/set design group and then again with the production company and their marketing team once the film was done.
I can say honestly that the entire process and everyone I interacted with, was nothing but respectful, and I got the feeling that although they were taking on a risky and difficult subject, they did want to genuinely get it right. I recently had the opportunity to see the final product as it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Now, up front, we do have to acknowledge a few things. This film will be controversial and will generate a great deal of criticisms to counter the praise you may have already heard. For individuals in the obesity patient advocacy realm, these criticisms will be familiar and expected. First, the name of the film. Knowing the film centers around a large-bodied individual, the name bugs me. I have been called a whale and know full well that many people will not be able to get past the name because it is hurtful. It is easy to simply connect the name of the movie as a reference to Charlie, the main character, and that is likely how most people will take it. I do wish they had used a different title for the movie, but, after watching the movie in its entirety, I also understand there is more to the story. The whale is obviously a reference to Charlie and his size, but it is also a nod to an important thread in the story. Charlie, an English teacher, loves the book Moby Dick, and he has a cherished student essay on the book that plays an important role in the movie (I won’t give it away). So, while I understand and share the cringe at the title of the film, I do urge everyone to try to look past it as I did.
Second, this movie was uncomfortable to watch at times, as is the style of Darren Aronofsky’s films. He is going to challenge you and make you reflect. He is not afraid to be graphic in his attempt at realism and honesty. The graphic images of Charlie and his body will certainly generate negative attention. As someone who has been working for years to fight weight bias and stigma, I am hyper-sensitive to media portrayals of larger bodies. In movies we are always the villian, or the half-wit goofy sidekick, or we are dehumanized for the sake of a joke. Our bodies are often used as a spectacle or gimmick and such uses would only serve to perpetuate bias and stigma. While this film does not shy away from the graphic imagery, it does so in a way that did not trigger me as it does in other places. I think this is because both Darren and Brendan make the point of humanizing Charlie and the imagery is just his honest reality. It is very clear that Charlie and his body are not intended to be a joke or a spectacle, but rather an honest depiction of this individual’s experience. In this way, rather than being offensive, I experienced empathy and a connection with Charlie.
Others will take issue with the choice of actor and the use of prosthetics to create a 600 lb man, rather than casting an individual with the body to suit the role. I do understand where this criticism comes from although, in this case, I disagree. In my engagement with Brendan, I found him to be a genuine, kind and respectful human who has his own experiences with body shaming and weight stigma – not to the extent of Charlie’s, but the concept is not unfamiliar to him. Charlie’s is much more than his size and has many characteristics that make him who he is. Brendan pointed out to me that “Charlie has a super power: he can see the good in people when they cannot see it in themselves, and he can bring that good out in them”. In order to do that effectively you need to cast someone who can connect emotionally with the audience and who has that natural, genuine kindness as part of the fabric of their being. I feel as if this is a role that no one else would have fit other than Brendan Fraser, and I could not imagine anyone else playing it.
One criticism I did have is the scenes that focused on food. Again, this is something that I am hyper-sensitive to because I know it can easily perpetuate old, ignorant narratives about obesity. In this case, there are some scenes where Charlie’s consumption of food is a “spectacle.” It bothered me because I was thinking “here we go again: people will just get the message that people with obesity just can’t control themselves and are ravenous food consumers.” As someone who has dealt with binge eating disorder, I can say my binges looked nothing like Charlie’s. I found myself annoyed that this aspect was so prominent and initially saw it as Hollywood taking some creative freedom to generate some drama, and it very well could be just that.
However, after the show there was a Q&A session with the audience. During this session, Samuel D. Hunter, the writer, explained that he based the story and Charlie, in part, on his own experience that included trauma, and as he describes it, using food to self-harm. This is his truth and his experience, and it is not intended to be representative of everyone. My work is informed by the numerous experiences of my peers that I speak to, so this is one aspect of this story that caught my attention, as what I saw on screen was not consistent with my personal experience and not what many of my peers have said. I had to make a conscious effort to remind myself that Charlie was not intended to be representative and the fact that his experience with binging is different from my own, does not make it any less valid.
The Whale is not easy to watch. It is challenging, dramatic, and emotional. It is not a happy story and honestly, should probably include some trigger warnings for some people. It is a powerful movie. I found each cast member to deliver great performances but none stood out more than Brendan Fraser who has a good chance at winning some awards for this performance.
Even though there is some graphic imagery and challenging themes, Brendan does something with Charlie that I don’t remember seeing in movies as someone living with obesity. He made a character in a larger body human. Someone who is productive, funny, smart, he has family and feelings and emotions and pain and trauma, he cares about people and people care about him. He is a complex individual and is troubled and imperfect, but nonetheless worthy of love, friendship, dignity and respect. The body did not define Charlie.
As mentioned, this is not a happy movie. This movie will not solve any of the issues we face as obesity patient advocates, nor was that the intent. However, I see Charlie as a positive step in the direction of representation. If we really want to improve weight bias and stigma and change the narrative about obesity, we need to normalize seeing examples of larger bodies in all sorts of different roles and situations. We need larger body superheros, love stories, comedians, successful business people, animated characters, action stars and so much more. Improved representation will make it an easier topic to talk about. This is just one such representation, now we need more!
My observation from the movie screening was that Brendan’s portrayal of Charlie made a room full of perpetually thin people who do not understand what it can be like living with obesity, fall in love with a large body character, allowing them to look past the body size and connect with a human. Millions of people will see this movie, and at least a few of them will come away with a better understanding of obesity and perhaps a little bit of empathy. They may shift some of their biases towards obesity and therefore may be a bit more kind. Not everyone will get it, not everyone will make this shift, but the few that do matter to those of us that have been working in this space.