A seemingly perfect family life is upended follow a harrowing accident in “Penguin Bloom”, the new Netflix family drama from Australian director Glendyn Ivin. The film is based on the acclaimed book from photographer Cameron Bloom and New York Times bestselling author Bradley Trevor Greive. It tells a story so sweet and uplifting you’d swear it was fiction. But it’s actually based on a moving true story and brought to life through the sincere and resonant performances from Naomi Watts and Andrew Lincoln.
Sam Bloom (Watts) lives a fun and adventurous life. She loves to surf, loves nature, and loves to travel. She and her husband Cameron (Lincoln) have passed on their love for life to their three rambunctious but goodhearted young sons. But everything changed during a family vacation in Thailand. While taking in some local scenery from the roof of their hotel, an old wooden guardrail breaks sending Sam plunging 20 feet to the hard ground below. As a result of the fall Sam broke her back and was left paralyzed from her chest down.
Back home following a long rehabilitation, Sam struggles to adjust to life in a wheelchair. Ivin along with screenwriters Shaun Grant and Harry Cripps make sure their film doesn’t sugarcoat Sam’s physical and emotional challenges. Watts, an Academy Award nominated actress, makes every aspect of it real for us, whether its something like her inability to roll over in bed or in visualizing the tortuous psychological toll which leads to a deep depression. Watts is too good of an actress to let her character sink into sentiment. Even as the movie hits us with its non-intrusive yet very familiar emotional cues Watts keeps her character grounded, never losing sight of the human element.
Hope comes in the most unlikeliest of places when their oldest son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) finds a baby magpie alone on the beach. He brings it home and names it Penguin. The family instantly warms up to Penguin except for Sam. But over time an unexpected attachment forms between the two. Soon Sam is caring for the young bird which in a thoughtful way represents her longing to be a mother for her own children the way she once did. And as Penguin overcomes her own adversity and learns to fly, Sam begins to realize that maybe she can too.
While subtlety isn’t the movie’s strength it gets the family dynamic just right. Lincoln’s low-key performance makes for a nice fit. His character fills in the cracks of the story by offering a look at Sam’s struggle from the family’s complicated point-of-view. And young Murray-Johnston has a lot of appeal playing a boy trying to adapt but missing his mother terribly. “It’s like mom was stolen from us,” he says in narration. He also battles guilt, blaming himself for his mother’s fall since he’s the one who wanted to go up to the roof. Jacki Weaver is great but underutilized playing Sam’s overbearing but well-meaning mother Jan who often speaks without a filter.
“Penguin Bloom” is a life-affirming story about overcoming adversity and rediscovering the love for life. It’s biggest problem is that everything is pretty much by-the-book. Don’t expect any original ideas or big surprises. It follows a tried-and-true feel-good formula that hits the normal beats and ends right where you expect. Yet it still makes for good viewing because of the heart-warming true story and the wonderful performances that bring it to the screen. They make us care, feel empathy, and root for this family to not only cherish their old adventures but find new ones as well.”Penguin Bloom” is now streaming on Netflix.
VERDICT – 3 STARS