Review by Catherine Callahan
A bird with a broken wing and a newly paraplegic woman: though the parallel seems immediately on-the-nose, Glendyn Ivin’s new Netflix film, Penguin Bloom (2020), is more than just a feel-good family drama. The ever-talented Naomi Watts portrays the true story of Sam Bloom, a young, adventurous mother left unable to walk after a traumatic fall while on holiday in Thailand. A year later, Sam is struggling to adapt to new realities, retreating further from her three free-spirited sons into depression. In flutters Penguin, an injured magpie the boys take home to foster, that is ready to capture hearts, wreak antics, and rehabilitate the mind and body of its thematic counterpart. All this can be predicted from the start of the movie, if not the trailer. However, Penguin Bloom embraces its predictability and formulates an emotive family portrait of broken spirits relearning to fly.
Penguin Bloom exceeded my expectations, as I was expecting a light family caper that might at best tug at heartstrings, and maybe have an actual penguin. Following the Soul Surfer (Sean McNamara, 2011) injury-to-success narrative and combining it with the unconventional house pet trope seemed so formulaic to the feel-good genre that I was taken aback by how dark Sam’s character study is. Sam suffers; she lashes out and misses out when it comes to the boys, and when she is standoffish she is understandable and human.
The unexpected intensity of the film is only magnified by a series of stressors: we wait anxiously as Sam ascends the stairs before her cataclysmic fall, we worry constantly about the will-she-won’t-she-return nature of having a pet bird, and we gasp horrified when the boys, even in the wake of such trauma, leap off the roof onto a trampoline and scale out of windows (it might not be Ivin’s intended conflict, but those boys need some supervision!). Penguin Bloom is an emotion-fuelled journey that still manages to keep its viewer on the edge of their seat, making them more and more invested in the well-being of the family and the safe return of their avian saviour.
The film’s cinematography highlights the idyllic natural setting of Sydney, Australia with bird-framed aerial views of the family’s home that maintain a hopeful, glowing atmosphere. Interspersed amongst these are Sam’s dream sequences. The metaphors of Sam’s dreams may be simplistic, as when she eerily sinks into blue depths in her wheelchair, drowning. However, their seamless integration into the cinematography adds something additional to an otherwise realist narrative by supplying pensively wide-angled shots. A wheelchair dripping water upon Sam’s waking up almost establishes a magical realist element to the piece: after all, Sam’s conflicted mind manifesting into her home setting is essentially at the heart of the character study.
Naomi Watts’ performance remains impassioned and affecting, and the birds that portray Penguin are perhaps the best-trained show-birds to be seen. Aside from a few cheesy lines of narration and a tendency toward the predictable, the characters form a compelling family unit, one with all the sentimentality that accompanies trauma and recovery, triumph and flight.