AFI Docs 2021 Review: “Fathom” Brings the Call of History to the Surface

Early on in “Fathom,” Dr. Michelle Fournet recalls how her stepfather, a classical pianist, used to insist on her playing one note until the sound disappeared, achieving a unity between what she would hear and what she would feel. Years later, there’s a certain poetry in seeing her essentially chase silence again by setting out to study humpback whales in Alaska, having little company besides director/cinematographer Drew Xanthopoulos on her boat as she seeks to find out if she can communicate with the whales, seizing on patterns that she’s spent over a decade collecting, hoping to crack the code to their language. Besides her unique pursuit, it gradually becomes clear why Xanthopoulos was so taken with Dr. Fournet, who may be fascinated with ideas of connection between whales, but less so with other people, giving a personal drive to a scientific study that might seem abstract and distant otherwise.

Xanthopoulous, who previously explored a collection of subjects who felt alienated from the world in “The Sensitives,” about people who claimed debilitating allergies that prevented them from participating in society, considers the reverse in his compelling follow-up as Dr. Fournet and Dr. Ellen Garland, a senior research fellow at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, conduct studies in Hobart Bay and French Polynesia, respectively, to record whales in an effort to understand how sophisticated their speech is and whether the conversation has evolved over time. The two share a common bond as female scientists in a male-dominated field and an obsession with getting at the root of whale communication, a primal form of expression that likely served as a building block for all other species, but they are at opposite ends of the earth as much temperamentally as geographically when Dr. Fournet openly laments a potential return to civilization, content in the peace and quiet of her work on the water, while Dr. Garland can look forward to returning to her family and embraces teamwork as part of her research.

Their different relationships to the other people in their lives demonstrate the difficulty of what they’re trying to track, as the whales are revealed to have interactions every bit as complex as humans and navigating the world is hardly any easier. Beyond capturing the grandeur of the sea that both scientists traverse, Xanthopoulos finds ways to express the intricacy of what they can hear and experience, with a detailed and constantly enlivening sound mix to convey the whale calls and a deliberate pace that allows moments of tranquility and reflection as Dr. Fournet and Dr. Garland set themselves up for a scientific breakthrough yet are constantly called upon to consider their own place in time and space. Finding the sweet spot between meditation and anticipation when the excitement that the two have for making a discovery is infectious, “Fathom” runs as deep as the waters in which Dr. Fournet and Dr. Garland gather their data, searching for answers about how language evolved to the point where it is now but uncovering even more than they had imagined in how we relate to one another in a world that is more disperse than ever.

“Fathom” is available to watch on AppleTV+ on June 25th.