Penguin Bloom (streaming on Netflix) is kind of a difficult movie to break down. It is an extremely formulaic, feel-good, based-on-a-true-story drama (adapted from the 2016 book Penguin the Magpie: The Odd Little Bird Who Saved a Family by Bradley Trevor Greive and Cameron Bloom), filled with obvious dialogue. It also has moments of genuine emotion and really strong performances, anchored by a wonderful Naomi Watts. Watching it, I kept bouncing between being frustrated and being moved by what was onscreen. The production keeps getting in its own way, underlining nearly everything and making me roll my eyes. But when it lets the actors tell the story, it is pretty good.
The setup is a little too convenient, despite being true. The Bloom family is happy and carefree, until the mother suffers a life-changing injury while on vacation in Thailand and is paralyzed from the waist down. They are all struggling with how to move on, when one of the children finds an injured Magpie, which he names Penguin. What are the odds that taking care of this small bird will help the family heal itself? The terms “feel-good” and “based-on-a-true-story” give the answer away.
I tend to get annoyed when a movie feels the need to explain itself at every turn. Penguin Bloom does not have a particularly complex plot, yet it leads its audience by the hand through development after development, as though the filmmakers were concerned we wouldn’t understand the significance of certain actions. The Bloom’s journey is both emotional and straight-forward; the vast majority of viewers should be able to follow it easily without having each theme laid out for them by the characters. Unfortunately, that is exactly what it does. Couple that with lots of adorable shots of the magpie behaving in precisely the way that is most useful at that moment, and it could have been deadly for my enjoyment.
Except it wasn’t. Whenever I thought Penguin Bloom had completely lost me, there was a tender conversation or a heartbreaking scene of Naomi Watts’ Sam dealing with her new reality to bring me back. Sam was an incredibly active woman who seems to have been the one running the house, taking care of her husband and three boys. Now she lies in bed feeling sorry for herself. Watts is very good in the first half, where her performance is mainly focused on a sense of loss for what she can no longer do. The second half, where she opens herself up to her family again, is equally impressive. It isn’t a subtle performance (after all, this isn’t a subtle movie). However, she never overplays the emotion. She hits just the right notes at the right times.
The supporting cast is solid, too; most notably, Andrew Lincoln as her sympathetic husband, trying to do whatever he can to get his wife back, and Jacki Weaver as her worried mother. There is one other character/actor I would like to discuss who shows up about halfway through, suggesting a different, more honest, approach Penguin Bloom could have taken with its material.
Warning: mild spoilers follow in the next paragraph.
In an effort to make Sam active again, the Bloom’s go to a kayaking lesson. Sure, she can’t run around anymore, but kayaking involves sitting. Though reluctant to start, Sam ends up going out on the water in the kayak, where she receives instructions from the teacher, Gaye (played perfectly by an actress named Rachel House). This scene is so remarkable, not just because it is good, but also because it is one of the few times it didn’t feel like the movie was either pitying Sam or over-sentimentalizing the family’s situation. Unlike everyone else, Gaye doesn’t treat Sam differently, calmly telling her what she needs to do. Sam, thinking she is incapable of being “normal,” resists. The way Gaye responds to her feels so real that no more conversation between the two of them was required to understand why they suddenly became very close friends (which is good, since there isn’t any). If the entire screenplay had treated the Bloom’s with the same attitude, and its audience with the same respect, it could’ve been really interesting.
The story is too cute, the metaphors far too simplistic and the dialogue spells out every theme as bluntly as it can. Still, Penguin Bloom contains moments of real honesty that nearly overcome all of its flaws. The total package is only okay, making it hard to recommend. Yet the most effective scenes, and Naomi Watts, are strong enough that Penguin Bloom might be worth a view regardless of its overall quality.
2¾ out of 5
Naomi Watts as Sam Bloom
Andrew Lincoln as Cameron Bloom
Griffin Murray-Johnston as Noah Bloom
Felix Cameron as Rueben Bloom
Abe Clifford-Barr as Oli Bloom
Jacki Weaver as Jan
Rachel House as Gaye Hatfield
Directed by Glendyn Ivin
Written by Harry Cripps and Shaun Grant