A film review by Craig J. Koban February 9, 2021


2021, Unrated, 95 mins

Naomi Watts as Sam Bloom  /  Andrew Lincoln as Cameron Bloom  /  Jacki Weaver as Jan  /  Rachel House as Gaye Hatfield  /  Gia Carides as Megan  /  Leeanna Walsman as Kylie  /  Lisa Hensley as Bron

Directed by Glendyn Ivin  /  Written by Harry Cripps and Shaun Grant, based on the book by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive


If the new Australian-American Netflix produced drama PENGUIN BLOOM wasn't based on a true story then I would have had an awfully hard time swallowing it.  

Adapted from the 2016 photography book of the same name by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Grieve, the film chronicles the reality based tale a family from Down Under whose wife/mother suffers from a tragic accident that causes partial paralysis, leading to all of them trying to cope and move on as best as they can.  They all then befriend an injured magpie chick and nurse it back to health and, in the process, emotionally heal their own wounded souls.  So, yeah, all of this sounds frankly ludicrous and could have been played out for maximum syrupy melodrama, but the approach here is so noble minded and thanklessly performed that it helps to keep everything emotionally grounded and dramatically authentic.  

Naomi Watts (also serving as producer here) stars as Sam, who lives with her photographer husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) and their three children.  We very quickly learn of the particulars of the aforementioned accident that horribly befalls Sam during a vacation in Thailand: She leans up against hotel patio guard rails (that are not particularly intact) and takes a brutal fall several meters below, breaking her back in the progress.  Sam survives the hellish ordeal, but emerges from it paralyzed from the chest down, leaving her husband and kids tending to her daily needs.  All of this is gut wrenching for the once free-spirited Sam, who once relished her physical freedom and beach front lifestyle, but now is stuck in a wheelchair and facing massive uphill battles everyday just to get out of bed and lead some semblance of a normal life.  Cameron and the children try as they can to ensure that Sam has everything she requires at her disposal, but deep down she still suffers from deep mental scars that don't appear to have healed at all...and perhaps never will. 



Fate steps with that injured magpie, which is first discovered by the children and they make it their new mission to ensure this exotic bird's survival.  Cameron seems receptive to the idea of the family having a new pet, of sorts, but the reclusive and miserable Sam - initially, at least - wants absolutely nothing to do with another wounded member of her clan that needs constant daily care.  Plus, the hurt bird chirps...all...the...time...and when it's not chirping it's getting into all kinds of inappropriate mischief around the house.  Regardless of how utterly annoying this bird is to Sam, her kids love it all the same and incongruently name it "Penguin" (mostly because its markings bare a resemblance to the arctic flightless bird).  When the family leaves home on business one day Sam finds herself all alone with Penguin, but she soon realizes that she's going to have to find a way to cohabitate with it to preserve her sanity.  And - wouldn't ya know it! - she begins to compassionately relay deep empathy from the creature's wounded plight, which seems like a mirror reflection of her own.  Like a new surrogate mother, Sam begins to bond with Penguin in surprising ways, which gives her life a newfound purpose. 

Directed with fine nuance and tact by Glendyn Ivin, PENGUIN BLOOM pulls off a very tricky balancing act throughout.  This film could have laid on the sweetness to annoying cavity inducing levels, and Penguin is definitely an adorable animal here.  Mercifully, the film never gets caught up in such creative traps and instead manages to also find a way of tapping into the inherent darkness of Sam's accident and her current fractured psyche, and it doesn't shy away from showing her at her worst.  There are times early on when Sam is almost insufferable to bare as someone that has simply giving up on nearly everything and would just rather stay bed ridden every day.  She has experienced unspeakable trauma, to be sure, but you can relate to her inner torment and lack of desire to take on any new responsibilities at home in terms of tending to the needs of a bird.  But the more time Sam spends with Penguin the more it opens up to her a new world of possibilities in terms of helping it - and herself - heal for the better.  Again, this is an inordinately weird premise as far as movies go, but there's a reasonably level of psychological grit to the proceedings that make Sam's journey feel all the more genuine and compelling to take. 

And Watts - God love her -  pulls off a small performance miracle here in terms of nailing the physicality (or lack thereof) of this indefinitely injured and immobile woman while also evoking all of her pain and misery in trying to deal with the rotten hand that life dealt her.  I appreciated how strongly understated her work is here without drawing to much needless attention to it (which is oftentimes the case with able bodied Oscar-grabbing actors playing disabled roles); she just sort of inhabits the role of Sam and lives within each moment of her days throughout the film.  When she does start to have a spiritual awakening it's far easier to buy into it and develop a rooting interest for her because she seems like a credibly layered character.  Watts is complimented by the equally fine work by Andrew Lincoln, who displays solid chemistry with his co-star and makes their marriage simmer with such an intimate veracity.  In many respects, Cameron is trying to heal as well, seeing as he has done just about everything for his wife with often failed results to re-ignite a spark in her, and witnessing her wither away is a different kind of burden.  It's admirable that PENGUIN BLOOM doesn't go out of its way to show this family unit as squeaky clean and without tensions or friction.

It should also be noted that PENGUIN BLOOM is beautifully shot with a near painterly eye for detail at times by Sam Chiplin, and the environments built around this family seem so vividly alive (I also liked how the editing and camera work here doesn't give away all of the details to Sam's accident earlier on and instead gives us snippets here and there, which is sort of how buried memories of past pains sort of work).  To its discredit, though, PENGUIN BLOOM still follows a fairly pedestrian and preordained path with the material (it doesn't take too many surprising detours as far as inspirational rehabilitation family dramas go).  When all is said and done, the screenplay adaptation by Harry Cripps and Shaun Grant safely goes through the motions of what viewers are probably expecting from a film like this, and relaying the film's themes here of rehab, rebirth and the healing power of animals is done in a fairly obligatory (and sometimes not so subtle) manner.  But PENGUIN BLOOM is an awfully hard film to hate because its heart is in the right place and it sensitively deals with how a shared family catastrophe affects all members in varying forms.  Most importantly, this is a family film made with an adult focus and one that doesn't try to be cloying and pandering to its audiences.  Yes, there's an adorable bird present here to elicit our collective awwwww reflex, but the film isn't trying to methodically and shamefully go for heartstrings like I feared it would have going in.  PENGUIN BLOOM's dramatic flight may be telegraphed in nature, to be fair, but it achieves enough of a sustained level of lift-off to warrant a look. 

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