Mon. Sep 28th, 2020

TIFF Review: ‘Penguin Bloom’ avoids ableist pitfalls with a compelling narrative and standout performance by Naomi Watts

Australian director Glendyn Ivin’s newest film Penguin Bloom tells the true story of Sam Bloom, who suffers a tragic accident during a vacation that changes her and her family’s lives. As they grapple with their new truth, they are helped when they meet an unusual visitor: A magpie who cannot fly. Starring Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, and Jacki Weaver in key roles, the film takes a traditional approach to a non-traditional story, streamlining its narrative for better and for worse.

From its opening moments, it is painstakingly clear what route this film will take. After the inciting incident of Sam’s (Naomi Watts) life-altering injury, the film’s narrative devolves into a straightforward melodrama that would feel more at home as the frontrunner of an early-2000’s awards race than the modern-day festival it has made its North-American bow at. Lacking any semblance of inventiveness, it’s screenplay is only salvaged by the inclusion of the titular magpie, who functions as an aptly positive metaphorical parallel to what the broken Bloom family deals with, and is able to inject fresh life into the otherwise tired and trodden narrative beats.

Yet, Penguin the magpie is not the only character that shines through the dull script. The rest of the cast stands out as well, although none more so than Sam Bloom herself, Naomi Watts. Delivering an emotional performance that channels a mix of anger, forgiveness, and understanding at the right times, she proves to be the heart of the film itself. While not a prominent contender for individual awards, perhaps if she had channeled this performance into a more daring and timely film, she could have walked away with a newly minted academy award in hand. 

Much does have to be said about the film’s stunning production values as well. Set in some of the most beautiful locations throughout Thailand and Australia, Ivin and the rest of his crew are able to take full advantage of capturing their surroundings. Here, cinematographer Sam Chiplin works in tandem with Ivin to brilliantly light the characters against a slew of backdrops, including sunsets and sunrises that accentuate the family during the sections that take place in the outdoors. In fact, one could argue that much of the creativity lacking in the screenplay can be found present instead in the collaboration between Chiplin and Ivin, who are able to present many key moments in intriguing ways that imbue certain shots with multilayered sets of both metaphorical and literal depth. 

When it comes to its overall thematic depth and purpose, however, the discourse it aims to have is a bit blurrier than what many would expect from a film like this one. Despite the understandable hardships Sam Bloom must face, some may glean the presence of ableist themes rooted in the many interactions Sam has with others around her. At some points, Sam expresses that she feels like a worthless burden who cannot explore her purpose in life, which are statements that if taken out of a grander context, could come off as an incredibly narrow-minded approach from the team behind the camera. However, as the film begins to wind down, we are shown that her inner conflict with the loss of her ability to walk is in fact one of the central emotional cruxes of the film and that Sams intentions are brought full circle as she learns to accept herself for who she is, and is able to finally find happiness within her being. While these ultimate sentiments could have been expressed in better ways in the earlier stages of the film, one should commend the film for straying from the temptation to keep that aspect one-dimensional and instead of fleshing it out into a full narrative arc.

The sections that bookend the film are an accurate representation of the best and worst qualities of the film. The opening is a heartfelt semi-montage– one that is accompanied by a touching narration and impactful cinematography that will touch all who see it, but by the end, despite the intriguing nature of Bloom’s real-life story after she comes to terms with her identity, the film relegates it to a pre-credit postscript, resulting in yet another instance of pushing away the details that make it stand out in favor of a traditional narrative that may fail to entice those already familiar with the structure. 

A solid adaptation of an important true story, Penguin Bloom manages to stand out because of Naomi Watts’ central performance. It successfully stays away from the ableist pitfalls to become a compelling narrative of acceptance and coming to terms with one’s own identity.

Grade: B

This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival. Penguin Bloom does not yet have US distribution.

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