Part of my major problem with this year’s Oscar-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, was that it was in large part a vanity project, a form of self-therapy for the film’s creator. I’m happy for the emotional breakthroughs he made, and the footage of the titular octopus was gorgeous, but it felt like watching something that was ultimately too personal and private for a wider audience. I couldn’t engage with the story because it was clear that this was one man’s journey, not ours as viewers.
That structural error is for the most part corrected with The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, directed by Joshua Zerman and produced by Adrian Grenier and Leonardo DiCaprio. Like Octopus, the film’s chief goal is to get the audience to form a rapport with its central animal, but it succeeds on a much higher level than its counterpart due to what feels like an open invitation to adventure as well as supplementary science to keep the audience interested.
The bulk of the first half of the action involves setting up the mystique of the whale dubbed “52,” and preparing for the actual search. Whales are known for their “song,” particularly that of the humpback, which is one of the most beautiful sounds in this world. Starting in 2015, Zerman began exploring the legend of a possibly unique whale that would sing at a frequency of 52 hertz, one that is not shared by any other known species. For years his migratory path was tracked by the U.S. Navy, along with that of several groups of blue and fin whales in the Pacific (they also use “his” as a pronoun, because apparently only males can sing), but in the early 00s, the project was ended.
Zerman walks us through not only the history and science behind tracking whale songs, but also the data collection necessary to figure out if 52 is even still alive, because there’s no point in attempting to fund an expedition if he’s already died in the 15-plus years since his call was last recorded. The whale has inspired a flurry of social media posts and memes over the years, a sort of fascination in the perception of it being alone in the world. In that way, it’s closer to Octopus than possibly intended, but even then, the film separates itself by illustrating that there was already a connection felt by a large swath of people, as opposed to the one. A mystery has already been raised, and the matter becomes solving it before tackling the next. Figure out if he’s alive, figure out if he’s still singing, find a way to detect the song again, then search the needle in a stack of needles inside the barn filled with hay that is the Pacific Ocean to find him and get visual confirmation of his existence for the first time. The excitement is already there, and the film finds ways to propel and magnify it, which is something Octopus could never do.
The second half is the expedition itself, a week to search an area off the southern California coast where blue and fin whales are traveling, working on the theory that 52 might be a hybrid of the two species, which would also explain his unique voice. It’s a lovely thought, because if nothing else it allows the world to speculate that he’s really not alone. Maybe he follows the groups. Maybe he’s a part of them. Maybe there are others we just haven’t detected yet, like any number of crossbred animals. There’s a wonder inherent in such possibilities, which is why the sciences are a passion for so many. When there’s a chance at true discovery, it drives us.
It also doesn’t hurt that the expedition is just a delight to watch. The crew is a joy, including a whale tagger who reminded me fondly of Jim Henson, both in voice and mannerisms. There’s also a researcher who programs audio buoys that are deployed to detect 52’s song. In one of the best lines of the film, he says something to the effect of, “When you’re handling equipment worth more than you’ve ever made, and that weighs more than you can lift, and you’re still going to throw it overboard, that’s when you know you’re a scientist.” In addition to the personalities, there’s some gorgeous photography. From suction cup tags placed on whales, to the underwater shots of the buoys being opened, to some really innovative drone footage to track the animals from above, there are a ton of great visuals for such a low budget production (crowdfunded by Grenier via Kickstarter).
The one major drawback for me was in an aside the film took about two thirds of the way through. There are a couple of scientific and historical vignettes throughout the film to sort of break up the action, which didn’t really bother me, but this particular one was misplaced. About halfway through the expedition, right as things are getting really interesting and suspenseful, the film cuts away for a lesson on the history of the whaling industry, and how whales were hunted almost to extinction by the middle of the 20th century.
There are three issues here. For one, it brings the action to a dead stop for the sake of a downer story right at what felt like a climactic moment. It’s also an oddly-placed call to action that could have been easily dispensed with during the first half, in the buildup to the quest. Two, this is not new information to anyone seeing this movie. This is not a film that’s going to convert new environmentalists (with one exception, which I’ll get to next). Everyone in that audience is already on board with saving the whales and conservation in general, so it feels like superfluous filler to pad the runtime.
Third, and most importantly, it is very graphic. This film is rated PG, so ostensibly it’s appropriate for children, who arguably are the only potential viewers who could be won over to the green side with the film’s message. In my mind, the beauty of the journey is wondrous enough to accomplish that goal, but I won’t fault Zerman et al for wanting to put in a little extra heft to make sure it gets across to a younger audience. However, any hope you’d have of winning kids over is dashed when you show quite frankly horrific footage of whales being harpooned in the open sea, their blood spilling into the water as they’re dragged into chop boats by chain, and their carcasses skinned on the deck. Thankfully I ate my snacks long before this moment, or I might have been sick in the chair it’s so graphic. But for a little kid? That would be goddamn traumatic.
This was the other core problem I had with My Octopus Teacher. A film that is rated (TV) PG and is targeted towards children (complete with Google ads during the Oscars and ad nauseam afterwards about how the film would spark interest in octopuses for inquisitive young minds) is only asking for trouble when it goes into such graphic detail about the death of an animal. In Octopus, we’re told very early on that the common octopus lives only for about a year, and we see these effects, from mutilation at the teeth of a predator to its eventual decay and death before a shark scoops it up and casually swims away chomping on it.
The same goes here. Kids are fascinated by whales, as well they should be, because they’re amazing creatures, just like octopuses. But that doesn’t mean the youngest viewers can handle watching the object of their affection die, especially not in such brutal and stark terms. Remember, there’s a reason most parents don’t show Bambi to their kids until they’re older, even though it is a children’s film. You either need to be absolutely sure the tykes can process what they’re seeing, or you better prepare yourself for hours of crying and screaming as their happy little world is obliterated. And this is bearing in mind that Bambi’s mom dies offscreen, rather than the viscera put right in center frame in these documentaries. At least in Octopus, there’s an argument to be made that it’s part of the story of this one man and this one sea creature, but here? There was no reason to stop the movie in its tracks just to remind everyone of the horrors of a bygone industry. The movie isn’t hampered one bit by its absence, but keeping that sequence in, especially at this particular point in the film, likely does a lot more harm than good if you’re looking to screen this for kids.
It’s for this reason that the documentary doesn’t quite rise to the 2021 pantheon. Apart from that one ill-advised tangent, this is a wonderful piece of nature filmmaking, filled with heart, adventure, and even a good lesson about finding the happy endings even when the obvious one doesn’t always present itself. It enflames the imagination with a colorful cast and a truly remarkable journey. I just wish they hadn’t nearly forfeited all their goodwill in service to a diversion that’s thematically and visually inappropriate for children and only preached to the choir of adults. Still well worth your time if this is a subject that interests you. Just, again, make sure your kids can handle the harsher moments.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever gone whale watching? What would be the coolest scientific discovery in your eyes? Let me know!