Penguin Bloom movie review: Naomi Watts stars in a weepy, timid family drama that never soars high
Penguin Bloom is a riveting character study of disability that falls slightly short of completely earning the complexity it so ably teases.
On an annual family vacation to Thailand with her husband and three sons, Samantha Bloom (Naomi Watts), suffers a devastating fall from a rooftop that leaves her paralysed from waist-down. Her wheelchair-bound existence doesn’t just become an indignity she has to confront on her own – it especially affects Noah, her eldest son who took her to the wretched spot and her photographer husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln), who stood right next to her when she fell. Both men are racked with survivor’s guilt as they blame themselves for putting Sam in harm’s way, revealing cracks in the family that seem far more irreversible than Sam’s paralysis.
At first pass, Glendyn Ivin’s Penguin Bloom, looks like it is a run-of-a-mill story about an otherwise close-knit family forced to piece itself back together in the face of an unthinkable tragedy. But elevated by Watts’ perceptive turn, the modest Australian drama also manages to vividly underline the pressures of being a caregiver and the very many ways by which healing at times obstructs the act of processing grief. The result is a riveting character study of disability that falls slightly short of completely earning the complexity it so ably teases.
We first see Sam through the eyes of Noah, whose voiceover informs the viewer about his mother’s attachment to water – she loved the sea, swimming and surfing with her three sons. His parents met at the beach and their house is decorated with portraits of the Bloom family outdoors, in particular at the beach. That’s what makes the entire ordeal even more saddening; it’s as if Sam’s individuality was snatched away from her in one instant. It’s then not entirely unsurprising that when they’re back to their sprawling beachfront mansion in Australia after the accident, Sam retreats into herself, unable to wrap her head around the fact that she has to now spend a life being a hostage in her own body. She constantly has nightmares about drowning in a wheelchair and plunges headfirst into despair, convinced that she is practically useless. “What am I if I can’t even be a mum?,” Sam tearfully vents to her husband after overhearing him tending to their vomiting sons while she lay in bed away from them.
The idea of exploring how paralysis stilts a victim’s sense of belonging and independence is not particularly novel, having been highlighted in several films before, but Watts’s transparent performance also arrives at another arresting singular feeling: the frustrating loss of individuality. Much of Sam’s plunge into despair stems from the fact that her accident rendered her incapable of doing the very activities that defined her personality. A confrontation sequence between Sam and Noah more than halfway in the film is a masterful articulation of the illogical resentment toward loved ones that disability brings along, a facet that most narratives are usually comfortable sweeping under the rug.
Based on a true story of the Bloom family that later became the subject of a memoir co-written by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Grieve, the title of the film alludes to an eponymous magpie brought home by one of Sam’s sons after he finds her injured on the beach. At first, Sam, who doesn’t really show an interest in doing pretty much anything these days, doesn’t take to the bird, insisting that they take her to a vet instead of nursing her back to health themselves. But as time goes by, she starts to take a liking to Penguin Bloom, who grows and flourishes under their care and in turn, ends up being the catalyst for her own renewal.
The parallels that the film’s writers (it’s adapted for the screen by Harry Gripps and Shaun Grant) draw between Sam’s tragedy and the magpie’s injury aren’t the most subtle or the most accomplished, taking away much of the pleasures that arise from the growing connection between Penguin and Sam. For instance, the challenge facing both Penguin and Sam are the same: they need to find a way to soar once again despite their physical limitations. Penguin’s first successful attempt at flying naturally motivates Sam to go kayaking (Real-life Sam Bloom competed in the World Kayaking Championship) and a dinner-table argument between Sam and her mother is contrasted by the noise of Penguin being pounced on by other magpies. It’s the kind of reliance on simplistic storytelling crutches that makes you wish that there were more quality filters to being a Netflix film.
The filmmaking (Penguin Bloom is shot in the actual Bloom estate) too is unbearably timid, invested in only hitting all the familiar overcoming-an-obstacle beats and not in being inventive with either plot or style. Besides Sam and Noah, the characterisation in Penguin Bloom feels too generic for its own good – there’s a curious distance that the film maintains while prodding at their inner lives. Sam’s husband for instance is built as a caricature of the ever-smiling, supportive husband, one whose outburst is also sugarcoated. Everyone in the film, Penguin included, feels a little too patient, a little too understanding to be conflicting or capable to be articulating the emotional disability of their situation. In that, the film’s eventual happy ending feels more inevitable than earned. It’s perhaps why even though the film is acutely likeable, it rarely is touching. As far as crowd-pleasers go, Penguin Bloom, which played at last year’s pandemic edition of Toronto International Film Festival before being boarded to Netflix, knows how to fulfil its obligations. The trouble is, being a watchable film seems hardly like an accomplishment anymore.
Rating: 2 out of 5
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