Synopsis: When an unlikely ally enters the Bloom family’s world in the form of an injured baby magpie they name Penguin, the bird’s arrival makes a profound difference in the struggling family’s life.
Stars: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Jacki Weaver, Griffin Murray-Johnston, Rachel House, Felix Cameron, Abe Clifford-Barr, Gia Carides, Leeanna Walsman, Lisa Hensley, Randolph Fields
Director: Glendyn Ivin
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: What I loved most about one of my all-time favorite critics Roger Ebert is that he could review a movie that was a top awards contender or the ninth sequel in a once popular franchise film and give them both equal considerations based on their individual merits. He didn’t compare the two to each other, he didn’t contrast the ninth sequel with the fourth sequel or ponder what could have been done in the sixth one to make the eighth lay better groundwork for the film he was watching then. He reported back to you how he felt about that movie on that day and often would revisit a film later and talk about how his experience changed over time on a second or third watch. I know I’ve looked over reviews I’ve done in the past for this site and couldn’t believe the high (or low) scores I’ve given a film. However, that’s where I was at the time and I have to trust my opinion I formed back then.
Maybe that’s my preamble apology (or is it excuse?) for what I’m going to say in the next few hundred or so words about Penguin Bloom, premiering on Netflix January 27th. Here’s a movie, based on a real-life family in New Zealand, that couldn’t be more predictable and made up of your standard formulaic elements that go into films surrounding overcoming adversity. It’s a kitchen sink flick that tries to fit as many issues in as possible and I’m half-amazed they couldn’t find a way to stick in a pair of bumbling thieves for a late in the game attempted bird-napping but, alas, screenwriters Harry Cripps & Shaun Grant (True History of the Kelly Gang) stick closely to the adaptation of the book from Cameron Bloom & Bradley Trevor Greive. Yet the fact remains that I wrapped up the film with a genuine warmth I didn’t have before I started it and it’s largely due to its admirable unwillingness to hide from its own mawkishness.
On a 2013 family vacation in Thailand, active mom and nurse Sam Bloom leaned back on a balcony railing and her life changed forever. Falling nearly 20 feet to the concrete pavement below, she was paralyzed from the waist down…but she was alive. With three young boys and a photographer husband she would now have to rely on, the once unstoppable force of nature had the wind knocked out of her sails and fell into a deep depression when faced with her new normal. Rarely venturing out of the house and refusing the extra care offered by family and friends, life is going on for Sam and the rest of the Blooms but nothing is flourishing. That’s the point where director Glendyn Ivin opens the film and while we get glimpses of life before the accident and small snippets of the horrific event itself, the action primarily is focused on the Bloom house and Sam’s life within.
Noah Bloom (Griffin Murray-Johnston) narrates the film, watching as his mother (Naomi Watts, Luce) exerts great energy to even pull herself up into a sitting position. Frustrating easily, she hasn’t quite mastered her way around their oceanside home yet and her wheelchair makes it difficult/impractical for her to accompany her outdoors-y sons to the beach or through their various daily adventures. Husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln, Love, Actually) helps as much as he can, but backs off when his wife feels lorded over. Her busybody mother (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) pays frequent visits, never missing an opportunity to point out something her once go-getter daughter could be doing differently and showing that even in the face of permanent paralysis, some mothers think there’s no excuse for having a dirty house. Mostly, Sam sits alone, looking at a wall of pictures of their life of abundant activity before Thailand.
While exploring the beach, the boys find an injured magpie that fell from its nest and bring it home in hopes of nursing it back to health. You can take one guess who is the most against the bird (named Penguin) at first and then I’ll let you go double or nothing to predict who will form the greatest bond with Penguin over time. The discovery of the injured bird the boys can nurse back to health and the way the bird seems to intuit family behavior is the tip of an iceberg of metaphors the screenwriters have placed along the way. The movie is just chock-a-block with parallels to how, among other bits, the healing of Penguin starts the healing process in Sam that you start to chart the course of where the journey for both human and bird will wind up. Unable to perform a miracle and restore their mother/wife back whole, there’s an unspoken knowledge among the Bloom men that their attention for this bird represents all that they wish they could be doing to help their family member.
To the great credit of the film, this isn’t a Mr. Popper’s Penguins sort of situation where it becomes more about magpie antics than serious minded drama but there is a general light tone to the movie, even in its darker passages. A particularly upsetting sequence near the end is tough to watch, but only because the movie has lined you up perfectly to be targeted for that emotional reaction. (No, that’s not a spoiler, by the way.) It was refreshing to be diverted away from some of the oft-traveled roads in these types of films or at least have the scenery not be exactly what you think. More often than not, even when the most predictable of moments arrive they aren’t dwelled upon long enough for viewers to squirm within the familiarity. It’s also not a movie with Watts chatting with a magpie and working out her emotions as if in a one-woman tour de force, it’s hard to describe but both are good scene partners in some strange way.
Speaking of performances, there’s solid work going on throughout the picture from the always underrated Watts turning in gold star work on a silver star picture. I don’t always love her choices in roles or films – she’s flirted with the Oscars a few times and has never been the right choice to win. She has the chops to get one, but it can’t be for roles like this…not that it comes across like she’s trying for it here with her relaxed showing. Not a fan of The Walking Dead here so I’ll have to trust you that Lincoln is dependable in the long run; he’s serviceable, if not all together memorable as your typical supportive husband and the same goes for Weaver in a role that feels too constricting for the quality of work she’s capable of. The boys are all fresh-faced and naturalistic, with Murray-Johnston handling himself nicely but coming up just a tad short in a pivotal scene. By far, the best performance in the film is Rachel House (Soul) as a kayak instructor that enters the Bloom’s life at the right time. House brings a special kind of light to the picture in her few short scenes and, don’t tell anyone, but there were times when I wondered what was going on at her character’s house because she was able to create something unique in her character that generated interest to know more.
At a short 95 minutes, the film develops a nice zeal with threads of harmony in the final act and found some moving scenes for Watts to shine. While it can be a hair on the heavy-handed side as it makes that final climb up to its conclusion, it doesn’t overburden you by staying in that weighty area for too long and instead chooses to keep its head up as it focuses on the bigger picture. Ultimately, Penguin Bloom is a pleasantly pleasant sort of film from Down Under and one that feels like it was the best one that could have been made from the story it wanted to tell.