“Everything was perfect,” says young Noah Bloom (Griffin Murray-Johnston), as he recollects his family’s Thailand vacation in Penguin Bloom. Then, it was not. Noah’s mother Sam (Naomi Watts) suffers a freak accident after leaning against a faulty roof railing. She survived the fall, but is left paralyzed from the chest down. Confined to a wheelchair, Sam finds herself in a pit of hopelessness. “It’s like Mum was stolen from us,” says Noah.
If not for the festival cred that Naomi Watts brings to the project, Penguin Bloom is not the kind of movie you expect to see in a TIFF line-up. It’s more a Lifetime movie or a TED talk stretched to feature length. It resorts to the usual tale of heroism we’re so used to seeing, the inherent feel-good catharsis of stories of disabled characters overcoming mental and physical hardships meant to inspire able-bodied audiences. Though I wouldn’t call Watts’s performance an A-list able-bodied actor challenging herself for Oscar glory, the question remains if the film wouldn’t have been better served had it cast an actor with disability to play Sam.
Sam used to love the ocean and surfing. But now, the ocean outside her home is nothing but an unpleasant reminder of what she has lost. This despair spills over into her dreams, where she sees herself drowning. She resents having to rely on others for help, but her husband Cam (Andrew Lincoln) tries to be supportive through her ordeal. So does her mother (Jacki Weaver) who smothers her with constant are-you-alrights.
Director Glendyn Ivin addresses Sam’s self-loathing and depression, not just her courage to overcome adversity. She feels guilty over not being able to fulfil her maternal obligations. In a scene where her children are throwing up in the bathroom after a bout of food poisoning, Sam feels helpless as she can’t run to their aid. Meanwhile, Noah struggles with guilt for having made her go to the roof, and worse, he worries his mother blames him for her accident.
Things improve when Noah brings home a wounded baby magpie that has fallen out of its nest. The Blooms take the bird under their wing, treat her wounds and baptise her Penguin (on account of her black-and-white plumage). Though Sam is initially cold towards her feathered foil, she eventually warms up to her. Penguin’s constant chirping is what drives her out of bed. Penguin learning to fly is what inspires her to get out of the house and take up kayaking. Soon, Sam slowly begins to regain the part of herself she had lost after the accident – and laughter and hope are restored in the Bloom household.
In the film’s conclusion, we learn Sam went on to compete in the World Kayaking Championships and even became a two-time World Adaptive Surfing Champion. Surely, focusing on that particular journey of bouncebackability would have made for a better movie. Sadly, it’s reduced to a postscript. Overwatered by its drippy sentimentality, the movie that Ivin instead serves us doesn’t quite bloom. Most of the plot doesn’t feel organic in its unfolding for a real-life story, it feels like it was concocted to tug at our heartstrings.
Watts guides this Hallmark card display of resilience and rebirth with plenty of heart. Rachel House as the kayaking instructor brings in some humour to the otherwise gloom-and-doom proceedings. In one of the film’s few memorable moments, she joins Watts on a duet cover of Radiohead’s Creep. Their avian counterpart will surely induce an aww or two.
Verdict: Penguin Bloom doesn’t quite aspire to be anything more than a typical sugary comfort-food weepie. So, keep the insulin and tissues handy.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival. It does not yet have US distribution.
Prahlad Srihari is a film and music critic based in Bangalore, India. His work has appeared on Little White Lies besides Indian publications like Firstpost and Silverscreen. Prahlad aspired to be a filmmaker but lacked the means and mettle to go through with it. So, he figured if he can’t make movies, he’d criticise ’em instead. He has covered film festivals like Cannes, Sundance, and Fantastic Fest on assignment. When he isn’t watching films or writing about them, he still dreams of collaborating with Claires, Denis and Mathon, on a feature film one day. You can find him on Twitter at @lad_blr.