Often times, I’m willing to forgive—or at least cut some slack—when it comes to overly sentimental films when they are based on true stories. And then there’s the Australian film Penguin Bloom, which tells the story of Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts), a free spirit with three young sons who loves to surf and travel with her family, including husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln). On a family vacation, Sam is seriously injured in a freak accident, which leaves her paralyzed from about the mid-chest down, forcing her to use a wheelchair—a struggle for her, both physically and emotionally.
Her boys are too young to know how to help, and Cameron is powerless to stop his wife’s all-consuming depression as she finds it nearly impossible to even find the will to get out of bed in the morning. And her overbearing, judgmental mother (Jacki Weaver) drinks too much, leaving her mostly useless to help as well. While Sam and her family are going through this adjustment in their lives, the oldest boy, Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston), finds a magpie with a broken wing under a bush in their yard. He brings it home, names it “Penguin,” and is determined to nurse it back to health. He seems more interested in helping the bird than his mother, something Sam notices and resents almost immediately, but there’s a rather heartbreaking reason for this, which we discover late in the film. But through the course of the story, Sam takes a liking to the bird and finds a purpose in helping it heal. Before long, the entire family becomes centered around this loud, pesky, distracting magpie, especially when it becomes clear that its presence has helped Sam break out of her sense of feeling broken and useless.
Based on the book Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird Who Saved a Family by Cameron Bloom and Trevor Greive, and directed by Glendyn Ivin (one of Australia’s leading television directors), Penguin Bloom ramps up the obnoxious behavior early and gives us what I think is one of Watts’ least interesting performances. Even she seems to think this story of a family and its adopted bird is probably not worthy of an entire movie, and when we find out that Noah blames himself for her accident, I almost gave myself whiplash rolling my eyes so far back in my head.
A glimmer of hope (for both the film and the family) comes with the arrival of Gaye (the great Rachel House, from Whale Rider and most of Taika Waititi’s films, including Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok), a water sports instructor who teaches Sam how to kayak as a form of physical therapy, but also giving Sam the means to reconnect with her beloved outdoors. But around the time Gaye is introduced into the film, Penguin is attacked by other birds and goes missing, causing the movie to grind to a halt while everyone they know is forced to look for this bird. If you’ve never experienced the thrill of watching humans go on the search for a bird, you’re in for a treat.
The combination of uninspired performances (as bad as Watts is here, Lincoln is even worse as the jellyfish of a husband) and a story that I found nearly impossible to connect with made Penguin Bloom seem like it lasted an eternity. Also, nothing about this bird made it as endearing as we’re meant to believe it became to this family. It knocks things off of shelves and causes all variety of mayhem—I wonder if that’s because a bird shouldn’t be allowed to wander around a house? We’ll never know. I’m sure in real life and possibly even in the book, these connections and parallels about healing ring more true, but in this lifeless, tepid dramatic adaptation, the story never takes flight.
The film begins streaming January 27 on Netflix.
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