If you were to be given a description of the basic premise of Penguin Bloom in broad, top level brushstrokes, you could well be forgiven for thinking that it’s another in a long line on sweetly inspirational, sentimentality run amuck cinematic stories that tug mightily at the heartstrings, rip your heart into teeny-tiny tear-soaked shreds before vanishing like overwrought must as the houselights come up.
Woman who loved swimming and surfing and who had built a highly satisfying life neat the beach in Sydney loses the ability to use her legs in a tragic fall while on holiday in Thailand and is plunged into a chasm of grief and loss so vast and black that the only one who can get her out of it is a Magpie chick named Penguin who teaches her how to live again.
It is, by any measure, a thoroughly delightful story but to leave it at that, lovely though it is, would be to do a grave disservice to the wonder and affecting authenticity that is Australian film, Penguin Bloom, directed by Glendyn Ivin, and based on the book of the same name by Cameron Bloom, Bradley Trevor Greive.
Certainly walking into the cinema – the film is also streaming on Netflix – every expectation is that this will be a charming but mawkishly lightweight film that will make an impression but not an overly lasting one.
Instead, what you get is a powerful journey into an unyielding place of great existential darkness, the kind that pays no heed to the facts on the ground – in the case of Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts), an idyllic beachside life with a loving devoted husband of longstanding in Cameroon (Andrew Lincoln), and three buoyantly happy, active and close sons Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston; Essi Murray-Johnston as young Noah), Rueben (Felix Cameron) and Oli (Abe Clifford-Barr) – and which stubbornly resists all attempts to bring it back into the light.
It is, in many ways, tough going, and it is meant to be because unlike tritely formulaic Hollywood movies which reassure you life is bright and sparkly still after great tragedy but accomplishing little of meaningful note, Penguin Bloom is about being real about how devastating it would be to think you have lost everything that makes your life special.
You could rationally argue that Sam still has much of what made her life special very much intact but that would be to callously disregard the fact that when you are in the mire of that kind of pain and loss, you are not open to be given a checklist of Things That Are Still Good About Your Life.
You may not even want unconditional love, acceptance and support, which is what Sam gets in spades from her husband, her sister Kylie (Leeanna Walsman), close friend and former nursing colleague Bron (Lisa Hensley) but as she says to Cameron one day in one of the heated arguments that mark Sam’s harrowing trajectory to a better state of mind, that isn’t enough.
There in that one scene lies the intensely, brutally honest but ultimately highly rewarding power of Penguin Bloom, which doesn’t sugarcoat how paraplegia can initially blow your expectations of what life will be to pieces, much as any great trauma would, and how the road back is not a series of determined montages set to uplifting music but a hard slog from the very worst of places to something approaching better.
In that spirit, it does not treat the arrival of Penguin into the Blooms’ lives as some sort of panacea to miraculously cure all ills.
He is adorable, intelligent, clever and intuitive, and it’s easy to see why the family fall in love with him after he is brought home from the beach where he has fallen out of his nest high in the towering gum that abuts the sand.
But adorable and sweet is not enough to coax Sam from her place of great sadness, one which sees her push her well-meaning but emotionally clumsy mother Jan (Jacki Weaver) off to the margins, and while Penguin does transform the fractured dynamics of this family, who at the bedrock do love and care for each other, it isn’t the whole story and Penguin Bloom wisely and with great, affecting narrative beauty makes that patently clear.
That really is the crux of what makes Penguin Bloom such a powerfully uplifting film.
It doesn’t pretend for a second that overwhelming, soul-searing trauma can be whisked away by the presence of one sprightly, highly-engaging bird, and the film spends much of its impacting first act and well into the second sitting in the depressing darkness with Sam and being brutally truthful about where she is and what a tough journey it will be to get her out of there.
It is also realistic about her recovery too, and while her introduction to kayaking via the no-kid-gloves, ballsy humour of Gaye (Rachel House) is the stuff of which a new, vibrantly-lived life is made, that doesn’t necessarily come easy, although with Penguin opening the door to not just Sam’s reengagement with life and her family but also the re-cohesion of the family as a loving supportive unit, does mean many of things that follow in the wake stuck and hold far faster and with more redemptive ferocity than might otherwise be the case.
The great, unbridled joy of Penguin Bloom is that all times it remembers that we are witnessing a real life be reborn and a real person be remade, which makes all the good stuff that follows in the wake of Penguin’s transformative arrival, all the sweeter, long-lasting and relatable.
Penguin Bloom is a film very much about “what happens after —” but it doesn’t pretend recovery is all waving wands and magical moments of montage-set epiphany with no emotional cost; rather it acknowledges how painful and griefstrickening devastating trauma can be and how dark a place it can create for a person, setting the scene for an authentic rising from the ashes which will have your heart thrilled, you soul uplifted and your mind enriched, because it feels real, it feels possible and in the end, after a great loss, what we all crave are realistic, life-changing possibilities, something this gloriously good and brilliantly realised film offers up in songbird-rich spades.
One thought on “Movie review: Penguin Bloom”
I watched this film a few days ago. It was very touching. Of course, I am easily touched by animal-human relationships. 🙂 I also enjoyed My Octopus Teacher.
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