TIFF Review: Naomi Watts is the best thing in the underwhelming Penguin Bloom

Penguin Bloom follows the story of the Bloom family, a happy and adventurous troupe who are led on many treks by the outgoing matriarch Sam (Naomi Watts). All appears well as they are holidaying in Thailand until a once-in-a-lifetime accident occurs; leaving Sam paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. 

Seen as a shadow of her former self and assuming the perceptions of others as a pitiable case, she often becomes emotionally distant or lashes out in anger toward her three sons Noah, Rueben and Oli (Griffin-Murray Johnson, Felix Cameron and Abe Clifford-Barr) while her photographer husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) struggles to hold down the fort. 

Things begin to perk up when the children find an injured magpie and they decide to nurture it in their home, naming it Penguin. Despite Sam’s objections, she reluctantly lets Penguin stay until it fully recovers. Little does she know is that this feathered little troublemaker may be the one thing that could bring the family back together again. 

From the looks of the synopsis, Penguin Bloom looks like something that should show in the afternoon on the ABC channel. A feel-good after-school special that lays on the lessons, squeezes out the tears and smothers the treacle. While the film does transcend the formula in some points; the film is too overly familiar to truly stand out. 

In terms of its positives, Watts provides a stellar performance as Sam. The script by Harry Cripps and Shaun Grant (based on the book of the same name) provides many cliched moments, like the requisite fit of destruction, but Watts manages to avoid histrionics and deliver compelling and nuanced work; especially when compared to her more melodramatic co-stars. Murray-Johnston on the other hand delivers engaging work as Noah, the eldest who bears responsibility for his mother’s accident. 

Director Glendyn Ivin manages to avoid going into saccharine overload by letting his story breathe, delivering some engaging visual moments that capture the mindset of Sam in a striking fashion; particularly in the case of the dream sequences that involve Sam in solitude in a body of water while her family are frolicking in the distance. Speaking of visual moments, the cinematography by Sam Chiplin is rosy and sunny; capturing the picturesque beauty of the filming locations. It is just a shame that the rest of the film is not up to the high level of Watts’ performance.  

The supporting cast do not get enough to do but they try the best they can. Lincoln lends solid work (including a decent Australian accent) but his character feels more like a plot device for Sam to emote to rather than a three-dimensional character. Jacki Weaver and Rachel House provide welcome presence, but House has very little screen time to be truly memorable. To make matters worse, Weaver’s character suffers the same fate as Lincoln’s character; to be used as a device to provide contrived tension rather than someone you can relate to (other than sympathy to the crux of the story). 

Ivin and his screenwriters may not reach excruciating heights in terms of sentimentality but they do not seem to trust their audience. The conflicts in the film are quite effective at times (the arguments between Sam and Cameron are believable) but similar to films written and directed (for example, by George Lucas), characters tend to say how they feel far too often rather than just simply act how they feel; which dilutes the emotional power of the story. 

The film also does not utilize the character of Noah enough since a part of the story is framed from his point of view. Ranging from his guilt on the accident to blaming other factors like the authorities in Thailand and his attachment to the titular role, it feels like a missed opportunity that his role is so haphazardly placed in the narrative. Therefore, the build-up to the conclusion of his character arc feels anticlimactic. 

The film also suffers from an overlong ending, and doing what this reviewer thought the film had not done in the preceding eighty minutes, by pouring the treacle all over the story via unconvincing dialogue callbacks and an image that looks disturbingly ableist i.e. Sam imagines herself standing and walking again through her moment of happiness. To make matters worse, when the end titles come up it shows that the real-life Sam would go on to be a two-time World Adaptive Surfing Champion; which is an odd choice to end on. Especially when the film could have explored that interesting plot point and yet it was used as a throwaway footnote. 

Overall, Penguin Bloom is not a terrible film by any means thanks to the commitments of good performers, good intentions and memorable moments of fine filmmaking. It is unfortunate however that the flawed storytelling, simplistic messaging and predictability prevent the film from soaring. 

TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Penguin Bloom screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, which is taking place mostly digitally this year. For more details head to tiff.net.

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