I think we all have fond memories of pet themed movies from when we were kids – “Fly Away Home”, “Turner and Hooch”, “Free Willy”, “E’Lollipop”, “Beethoven” or even “Old Yeller” (though the older I’ve gotten the less kid-friendly that thing became). Its an almost universally and uniquely uniting theme; we either grew up loving our pets or envying the other kids in the neighbourhood who did have them, and when there’s a bad guy in a movie who threatens or hurts the family pet then you know they’re a special kind of evil. The animal in question has to be a real life proper animal though with a trainer off camera, what do I care if a CGI puppy dog gets rubbed out?
Never thought I’d think of a magpie that way though! “Penguin Bloom” is the adaptation of the real life story of Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts), an Australian woman who fell from a balcony while on holiday with her family in Thailand in 2013 and became a paraplegic. The film follows Sam’s life following the accident, how it had turned her life upside down and how it impacted her husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln), her three sons and somwehat overbearing mother (Jacki Weaver). Sam is despondent and overwhelmed by helplessness returning to life in Australia in a wheelchair; she can’t get up to look after her boys in the middle of the night when they’re sick (“They used to call for me if they woke up scared…”), resentfully looks at the photographs on the mantlepiece of her surfing and running, and avoids interacting with her friends and family who are reaching out to support her, preferring instead to sit in the dark with the blinds closed. Things all start to change however when Sam’s eldest son Noah finds an injured magpie chick and brings her home to recover. They name her “Penguin”, (because she’s black and white) and quickly becomes a fixture of the family, snuggling with them while they watch TV and following them around the house. Sam develops a friendship with Penguin, and as Penguin regains strength, Sam too begins to regain hope and optimism for her recovery.
The film’s director Glendyn Ivin has done well in creating an authentic dynamic; the boys just seem like regular little boys rather than overly cutesie little cherubs and there are scenes where Ivin just lets the camera follow the brothers as they play and muck around. Beyond this, Ivin did well to portray Sam’s paraplegia with as much authenticity as possible while limiting emotional contrivance and Watts finds the balance beautifully. You can see the frustration in her eyes as the simplest things have now become exhausting – getting into bed, having a shower, turning over in the night. Watts initial depiction is rooted fairly strongly in anger and disillunisonment and importantly doesn’t portray Sam as completely reasonable as she readjusts to her new reality. There are many moments where she unfairly snaps at her husband Cameron (Andrew Linvoln from “The Walking Dead” with a surprisingly good Australian accent) who is doing the best he can with a newly incapacited wife and three young boys while still operating as a professional photographer to provide for them all. There are times when she does appear to be ungrateful and bitter but I’m glad that they took that approach because that’s what the reality would have been! It would have been ridiculous if Sam had returned home and taken the fact that she can’t move half her body with gentle good humour, sitting prettily with a blanket and a smile like Deborah Kerr in “An Affair to Remember”. It’s completely appropriate that it takes her time and introspection to rediscover hope, and of course some help from her little friend Penguin.
If this wasn’t a true story, the symbolism attached to Sam’s friendship with Penguin accompanying her own recovery might seem a bit too on the nose. Penguin learning to fly just as Sam spreads her own wings… Sam perhaps seeing that she owes herself a little kindness too as she nurses the little bird back to health. Sometimes the script is a little clunky and exposition heavy, and I don’t think the eldest son Noah’s narration at the beginning and throughout was really necessary or helpful. Like I mentioned earlier though, I didn’t think once that any of it seemed disingenuous or too sickly sweet; its perfectly reasonable how Penguin came into the Blooms’ lives and that Sam would benefit from having something to look after and possibly even be inspired by.
Beyond all of this, Penguin is just fun to have on screen! She potters around and chirps away and provides plenty of comedic relief surrounding some of the heavier scenes in the film. While at lunch for Sam’s birthday at her mother’s house (Jacki Weaver is great but a little underutilised here), Penguin is attacked by two other magpies and its genuinely horrifying. Following this, Sam confronts her eldest son Noah about him blaming himself for her accident and for letting Penguin play outside that day. It’s a pretty exhausting and intense little scene, and as soon as they had all hugged and fell into each other’s arms crying, a little kid at the back of my cinema said loudly to his mum “But I’m still worried about Penguin”. As much as I was happy for the Blooms, I was too.
This is a lovely film. It’s real, touching, beautifully Australian and Sam’s character arc and the family coming to terms with what happened to her feels earned and justified. By the end of the film I think the entire cinema had not only fallen in love with Penguin just like the Blooms, but also felt properly warm and fuzzy that this sweet little family was happy again.
By Jock Lehman