Penguin Bloom (2020)

Sydney local Sam Bloom had a self-confessed charmed life in the years leading up to a family holiday in 2013 that took a tragic turn for the worse.  A nurse, with an adoring husband and three children to boot, she had the life she dreamed of.  But a trip to Thailand changed her perspective on life when a rotted balcony railing gave in and Sam fell 6 meters off the ledge to the concrete below.

Lucky to be alive after extensive surgery left her paralysed from the chest down, she found the mental and physical strength to keep going in the unlikeliest of companions – an injured magpie.  Named Penguin due to its black and white colouring, Sam’s determination to free herself from the shackles of restraint she had admittedly put on herself was mirrored in Penguin’s own plight to properly adapt to its wings and fly away.

It’s a suitably inspiring tale – one that would almost seem too saccharine had it not been true – and it understandably makes for good film fodder.  Enter, Penguin Bloom.  Marking a return to feature film for director Glendyn Ivin (whose last film credit was the 2009 Hugo Weaving feature Last Ride), this true story drama is as formulaic as they come, but thankfully has enjoyable, committed work from a cast that manage to elevate the film beyond the standard mentality it mostly adheres to.

Whilst Sam’s life prior to the Thailand accident is only alluded to, we’re able to garner her frustrations at being so restricted by her movements, and that’s largely due to a typically outstanding performance from Naomi Watts, who seems to have a penchant for making even the most archetypal of roles somewhat engaging.  She’s fighting off occasionally stilted dialogue, but her anger at being spoken about as if she’s not in the right to be consulted about her own movements feels natural, and the film is always at its most interesting when she’s directly involved.

Though the film is called Penguin Bloom, and indeed the little magpie that becomes an unlikely family staple pulls the majority of the narrative focus – the sweetness developed between the initially hesitant Sam and Penguin is undeniable – the Shaun Grant/Harry Cripps-penned script is ironically at its strongest when Sam takes the wheel and ventures out of her comfort zone, finding a kindred spirit in Gaye (Rachel House), a loud, straight-shooting kayak instructor who encourages Sam to trust her own body when embracing the water once more; there’s an incredibly tender moment between the two as Gaye supports Sam in the water both singing along to Radiohead’s “Creep”.

As much as it’s based on a true story, a little embellishment or deeper side plot could’ve assisted the film in being more than just the sum of its parts; the family dynamic between Sam and her mother (the always sunny Jacki Weaver) feeling like an area that could’ve been expanded on.  Regardless of its shortcomings though, a devoted cast (Andrew Lincoln makes for a nice presence as Sam’s supportive husband), a moving lead turn, and warm, inviting visuals result in Penguin Bloom‘s innocuous tone being easily digested.

Penguin Bloom is screening in Australian cinemas from January 21st, 2021.  It will stream on Netflix from January 27th, 2021 throughout North America, the UK, France, and select Asian countries.

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