Directed by Glendyn Ivin
Written by Harry Cripps and Shaun Grant
A penguin is a notable animal, a bird in fact that has had several popular documentaries made about them, most notably March of the Penguins. They are a flightless bird, one of just a handful that are not already extinct, which calls into question whether they’re really birds at all. But I digress. Magpie’s are also birds. Perhaps not nearly as popular because they haven’t had their lives narrated by the incomparable Morgan Freeman in front an awards voting body like the HFPA or Academy, but they are in fact one of the most intelligent animals in the world, it says here on the wikipedia page. Perhaps misleading, magpies are not in fact pies to be eaten, but rather a species of birds that, unlike their Antarctic and Pittsburgh counterparts, can fly. You might wonder why I’m going through this exercise at the beginning of a review of a movie starring Naomi Watts and premiering on Netflix streaming, but I can assure you that neither the penguin or the magpie is a flower, and therefore does not, by definition, “bloom”.
The Bloom family are a fun bunch of travelers and adventurers, led by matriarch Sam (Naomi Watts) and patriarch Cam (Andrew Lincoln). One day, while on Holiday in Thailand (and not Disneyland, the preferred destination of three Bloom children), Sam suffers an unfortunate accident which breaks her back, leaving her paralyzed from the mid-section down. Adjusting to a new life affected by the injury, Cam and co. are endlessly supportive, but Sam struggles to accept her new reality after a once very active lifestyle. The depression affects her family and is worsening, until the kids find an injured magpie on the beach. They bring the bird home and begin to rehabilitate it in hopes of it flying once again, even naming it Penguin. This new member of the family begins to give Sam purpose once again, as she sees the possibility of flight once more. Eventually she begins seeing friends again, spending time with her mother (Jacki Weaver) again, and even taking kayaking lessons from a no-nonsense instructor (Rachel House), which brightens not only Sam’s world once more, but that of the entire Bloom family.
Based on a true story, I cannot imagine anything other than inspiration and true fortitude from the Blooms. I take absolutely nothing away from their journey and coping with such a life-changing experience and event. To open your heart and see the person for who they are, not what they are, that Sam is still Sam, whether she can surf or not, and then being able to make that person feel the same way is not a journey I envy, or can even personally appreciate. And in that respect, the cast, namely Naomi Watts, are very strong in communicating that sense of family that is essential in a story like this one. Rachel House is also a brief bright spot of inspiration and comedic relief, not taking no for an answer from a woman too afraid to fail at something that before would have been second nature. But ultimately, the film fails to capture the right tone throughout to become more deeply resonate. Look, it’s impossible to ignore the built-in emotions of this story, but Glendyn Ivin and company do very little to elevate it or communicate it efficiently.
If not for all the incessant squawking, perhaps I would have enjoyed the story a little more. But largely, it just felt way too sentimental, and on the nose. The parallel of the injured bird rehabilitating alongside the injured matriarch is, for lack of a better term, obvious. And while subtlety is not always the way to go, and perhaps unavoidable in this instance, I think even a smidge more subtlety would have suited the material. Especially too, I think, a greater sense of levity and not taking itself too seriously. As a film about a woman who finds solace and inspiration from a bird, I think playing things as earnestly as Ivin/Watts do here is a little misguided. Certainly broken backs and being paralyzed are nothing to be taken lightly, but because they are such serious and grim subjects, there needs to be some element which helps break that graveness. Those elements are fleeting in Penguin Bloom and the film is ultimately hurt by it.
I give all the credit in the world to the real Sam Bloom, and her family, for having to go through an experience like this, and live with it to this day. Finding the joy in life is not easy on a day to day basis, even for those of us who are largely unaffected by any serious life-altering injuries or experiences. To find the joy in life under these circumstances is, in and of itself, an inspiration to all. But there were few moments in this film when I felt truly inspired, let alone entertained or driven to reflective thought. Those are failings of the film and filmmakers, not of the Bloom’s.