Rarely does a logline predict a viewer’s response as accurately as in Glendyn Ivin’s Penguin Bloom. If the following summary sounds to you like a good way to spend an hour and a half — nursing a rescued bird helps a newly paralyzed mother move past self-pity and rejoin her happy family — you’ll be moved. If that doesn’t sound enticing, nothing about the movie (which is based on a true story) will change your mind. Naomi Watts and Andrew Lincoln bring dignity and seriousness to what might’ve been a painfully sappy tale of rebirth, and their star power offers the Aussie import’s main hope of connection with audiences. But this is hardly the complex material cinephiles hope for at festivals, whether they attend them remotely or in person.
Watts plays Sam Bloom, who has always reveled in outdoor sports — skateboarding and surfing with her husband Cam (Lincoln) and three adoring boys. But when she falls off a building and loses all sensation beneath her mid-torso, she’s torn from all that, and the view outside her beachfront home becomes a painful reminder. She learns that she’s not the kind of mom to put on a brave face for her kids — her bitterness is a thick cloud, and no one can comfort her. Amid all the obvious things she’s lost, the film deftly illustrates a less tangible one: When one of her boys wakes up sick and calls for help amid a bout of vomiting, she can’t run to his side.
We learn about Sam’s accident in voiceover by her oldest son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston, in a sensitive screen debut), who secretly believes that he’s responsible for it, and that his mother blames him. Noah gets a much-needed distraction when he finds an injured magpie on the beach one day and brings it home to heal. The boys name it Penguin for its black-and-white feathers, and pretend to agree when Sam says it can only stay until it’s able to fly again. She’s not really happy to have yet another inhabitant in the house she now feels stuck in. But when Noah’s going off to school and begs, “Mom, can you look after Penguin for me?,” you’d have to be pretty dense not to know that’s about to change.
Ivin and composer Marcelo Zarvos push right up to the border of too-cute as the film watches Penguin rise from his sickbed and hop around the house, breaking pottery and getting underwear on his head. Soon he hops out the front door, forcing Sam to wheel out behind him and feel the sun on her skin.
It’s not an instant cure. Lincoln is sympathetic as Cam, who does all he can think of to accommodate his wife’s new needs while maintaining normalcy for the kids. But Cam’s efforts are often an irritant for Sam, and (while her responses are sometimes too tantrum-y to entirely believe) their fights hurt just enough to make the situation real. (And they never hurt so much that we doubt we’ll eventually get a pat happy ending.)
Sam rebounds as Penguin does, and occasional family strife — like insensitive comments from Sam’s overprotective mother (Jacki Weaver) — doesn’t really disturb the pic’s upward emotional trajectory. When the inevitable happens, viewers have been well prepared to take the bitter with the sweet.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production companies: Made Up Stories, Broadtalk, JamTart Films
Cast: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Griffin Murray-Johnston, Felix Cameron, Abe Clifford-Barr, Jacki Weaver
Director: Glendyn Ivin
Screenwriters: Shaun Grant, Harry Cripps
Producers: Emma Cooper, Bruna Papandrea, Steve Hutensky, Jodi Matterson, Naomi Watts
Director of photography: Sam Chiplin
Production designer: Annie Beauchamp
Costume designer: Joanna Mae Park
Editor: Maria Papoutsis
Composer: Marcelo Zarvos
Casting directors: Kirsty McGregor, Stevie Ray
Sales: Endeavor Content