Life was perfect for the Blooms.
Cam (Andrew Lincoln), a photographer, alongside his adventurous wife Sam (Naomi Watts), a lover of all things outdoors, had made a really good life for them and their three sons, Noah, Rueben, and Oli. They lived comfortably in a beautiful Australian home, just a stone’s throw from the beach. They spent many a day (and night) galivanting on said beach, happy as clams, swimming and surfing and running through the sand without a care in the world. Perhaps most importantly, they loved each other. They were an unusually tight-knit group, the kind of uncompromisingly devoted family you only see on the silver screen.
And then they went to Thailand.
The kids wanted to go to Disney Land. What kid doesn’t? But the adults decided Thailand was the better choice. So off to Thailand it was. And this was perfect, too. For a while. They went to the beach. They explored the exotic wares of the bustling Thai marketplaces. They did what people do on vacation. Naturally, that included sightseeing. And this is where the story of the Blooms and their perfect life gets a little less perfect.
While looking out over the Thai landscape on the roof of a building multiple stories high, Sam puts her weight on the fence designed to preclude people from falling, and tragically does just that. The impact when she hits the ground breaks her back and paralyzes her from essentially the chest down.
Fairytale over, right? Believe it or not, it’s just beginning.
While life gets understandably more challenging for Sam and the rest of the family following the accident, they ultimately find some semblance of solace and inspiration in a bird. A magpie, to be exact. A magpie chick left injured and abandoned, only to be discovered by Noah and brought back to the Bloom household for safekeeping. A kinship is immediately sparked between the bird, who they affectionately name Penguin, and the Bloom family. The Bloom family other than Sam, that is, who is put off by having a wild animal in her home and insists that Penguin’s stay is temporary.
Sam’s resistance to Penguin gradually abrades as they spend more time together by themselves. She begins to see shades of her own struggles in the plight of a bird rendered unable to fly without her mother to teach her, and the two are ultimately revealed to possess as kindred a pair of spirits as you’ll find across two different species.
Does that sound like a heaping helping of Hollywood cheese or what? If you’re thinking that, you’d actually be incorrect on a couple of fronts. Firstly, this is not a Hollywood film, but rather an Australian one. And secondly, Penguin Bloom is an adaptation of a book that recounts the true events of the very real Bloom family and their very real experiences with a certain very real magpie named Penguin.
While their story sounds like something concocted on the assembly line at the fluffy, feel-good film factory, it isn’t. It’s a rather incredible true story, and one that is certainly worthy of telling. With that said, the resulting film is remarkably pedestrian for having such extraordinary real-life inspiration.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Glendyn Ivin‘s Penguin Bloom goes wrong. The performances are all quite strong, most notably from a committed Naomi Watts as Sam. There is also some refreshing comic relief supplied by Jacki Weaver and Rachel House in supporting roles. The cinematography by Sam Chiplin is nothing short of superlative. The aforementioned true story on which the film is based seems ready-made for the kind of heartwarming family fare you often see from movies about lovable animals. But something isn’t quite right.
I believe the film’s most pressing issue lies in its cripplingly inconsistent storytelling (pardon the pun). It seems unsure of what exactly its main storyline is, and we as the audience are therefore left to try and figure it out on our own. Who precisely is the main character? Is it Noah, the eldest son, who provides sporadic narration in the form of a mysterious documentary he’s making about his mom (a plot thread left head-scratchingly under-utilized)? Is it Sam herself, whose harrowing experience is the impetus for all of the family drama and personal conflict present throughout the movie? Is it the Bloom family as a whole? Penguin, perhaps?!
Like I said, the answer is unclear. A movie without an identifiable protagonist is a movie without much narrative purpose or dramatic momentum. That certainly describes Penguin Bloom. It’s unfortunate, because the filmmakers clearly have the absolute best of intentions in telling this particular story and there is some impressive craft on display here. It’s hard to give this film much of a recommendation, however. If you’re especially passionate about animals, then perhaps you’ll find some satisfaction in the (admittedly quite cute) antics that Penguin gets herself into. Beyond that, however, Penguin Bloom is a so-so melodrama that never quite gets off the ground.
Drama | Australia, 2020 | 12 | Netflix Original | 27th January 2021 | Dir.Glendyn Ivin | Naomi Watts, Griffin Murray-Johnston, Andrew Lincoln, Felix Cameron, Jacki Weaver, Rachael House