Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Stars: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Jacki Weaver
Writer: Harry Cripps, based on Cameron Bloom’s book
Director: Glendyn Ivin
Streaming on Netflix. Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival
Seriously, if you cannot find it in your heart to draw enjoyment from the sweet-natured true story of a profoundly depressed woman who rediscovers joy thanks to a wounded magpie she nurses back to health, there is some dark hole in your soul that needs attending to straight away.
Penguin Bloom—oddly named because there is, in fact, not a single penguin to be found for its entirety—follows in the sure-footed steps of soapy animal redemption movies like Marley and Me and The Art of Racing in the Rain. It’s the sort of film PETA would produce if they were to redirect their red paint budget into movie production, a movie you don’t have to be a pet lover to love.
Naomi Watts, as serious a screen actor as you will find, brings undeniable weight to the role of Sam Bloom, a nurse, wife of a successful photographer, and mother of three young boys who, in 2013, suffered a shattered spine in a devastating fall. Paralyzed from the waist down, the avowed health nut and surfing fanatic was plunged to the pit of despair with the news that she would never walk again.
It’s tough going early in the film as Sam stares vacantly from the windows of her home on the picturesque coast of New South Wales, Australia, repulsed by the notion of being helped in even the most humdrum daily activities by her endlessly patient hubby Cameron (The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln). She snaps at her children, pulls away from her mate, and seems destined to spend the next 50 years or so cursing at the world that betrayed her. Even Sam’s determinedly cheerful mom, played by an almost militantly upbeat Jackie Weaver, can’t pull her out of the doldrums.
Then comes hope in the form of a feathery fluff ball discovered, abandoned and sickly, on the beach below Sam’s home. The kids name the tiny magpie Penguin because of its black and white markings (I would have gone with Heckle or Jeckle, but, then again, I’m not sure Australians share my childhood memories of old Terrytoons).
Of course, Sam wants nothing to do with the playful bird that hops around the house croaking noisily and breaking things. Also of course, sometime after the rest of us have all grasped that Penguin is a feathery allegory for her own situation, Sam begins to rediscover the supremely human dynamic of needing others while simultaneously being needed.
Just why Sam has to learn this from a mischievous bird rather than from, say, her own three children is one of the narrative gaps that could have easily snipped the blossom off Penguin Bloom, but Director Glendyn Ivin, a prolific Australian TV director, knows how to keep the story plunging forward before we ask too many questions.
What matters is Penguin Bloom’s charming, if familiar, premise, and the heartfelt performances by a first-rate cast that knows how to give it wings.