‘Penguin Bloom’ Review: Naomi Watts Is the Lead, but This True Story Belongs to Incredible Avian Co-Star

TIFF: The race for the first-ever Oscar given to a bird starts here, care of an amazing magpie who matches paces with a finely tuned Watts.
'Penguin Bloom' Review: Naomi Watts and a Bird Star in True Story
"Penguin Bloom"

In 2011, former Movieline editor S.T. VanAirsdale suggested — not entirely facetiously — that the dog who played Uggie in the then-Oscar contender “The Artist” be considered for his own Academy Award. It wasn’t an ask without precedent (Rin Tin Tin was in the race for the very first Best Actor award, and arguably won the accolade), but it was certainly the most public awards campaign for a non-human actor.

Nearly a decade later, it’s time for another: Give an Oscar for the bird(s) that star in Glendyn Ivin’s dramatic real-life story, “Penguin Bloom.” That’s not to diminish the work of the human actors — including a stirring Naomi Watts and a breakout performance by young actor Griffin Murray-Johnston — but there’s a reason why this gentle Aussie drama is named after its sole winged character. Based on the book of the same name by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive, Ivin’s latest feature tracks a familiar enough story about injury, grief, and resilience, though one wonderfully fluffed up by the unlikely heroine at its heart.

Narrated by sensitive tween Noah (Murray-Johnston), “Penguin Bloom” follows the story of the Bloom family, a happy and exceedingly athletic Aussie tribe, seemingly held together by its only female member, beloved mother Sam (Watts). After a freak accident on a Thai holiday (flashbacks to Watts’ turn in “The Impossible” are hard to shake), Sam is left in a wheelchair, a shell of her former self that whinges between anger (enter requisite “angry destruction” scene) and helplessness. “It’s like Mum was stolen from us,” Noah remarks at one point, a heartbreakingly astute observation from a wise kid.

Ivin strikes an early balance between perspectives, with Noah weighing in via voiceover, before tipping the narrative over to Sam herself (often through dreams that interrogate her emotional state) and using a more objective approach to tell the rest of the story. While Noah follows an arc that feels traditional to the genre (complete with revelations about the blame he places on himself), Sam’s take is a bit more free-wheeling. Ivin doesn’t wholly ignore other tragedy tropes — look out, lovely wall filled with photographs of the family’s life before the accident; be wary, well-meaning family friends who stop by for a visit — but Watts’ finely tuned performance, never fussy and often biting, helps guide the film’s more predictable pathways.

And then there’s Penguin. It’s Noah who finds the abandoned baby magpie, chirping away on a local beach, totally alone and presumably quite freaked out about the whole thing. (Penguin is allegedly portrayed by eight different magpies.) The Blooms are kind, giving folks — and kudos to Ivin and his young stars, including Felix Cameron and Abe Clifford-Barr as Noah’s brothers, for offering well-rounded kids who feel very real — and they bring the chick into their home. Sam, scared of everything and no longer sure of herself, resists; she calls the young charge “bird” when everyone else takes to calling her “Penguin.”

“Peng” needs a mother, and Sam needs to be able to care for someone else. The path is clear, but “Penguin Bloom” often finds lovely, honest diversions that keep this somewhat outlandish (but true!) story on track. Both the film and Sam are bolstered by Penguin’s arrival, a madcap little thing who inevitably requires Sam’s focus and care. Always squawking, and mostly sounding like air being forced out of a balloon (a Disney-fied version of young animals this is not), Penguin poops her way through the house and, yes, right into Sam’s heart. She’ll do the same to the film’s audience, to be sure.

The metaphor that takes root is a blunt one — Sam says that Penguin can stay “just until she gets strong enough” to take wing, an obvious reflection of her own physical issues — but that doesn’t make it any less moving. Mostly set within the Blooms’ lived-in beach house, Sam begins to make tentative moves back into the real world as Penguin starts to flourish. A jarring night out with her chatty mother (Jacki Weaver, bright even in a small role) and her sister (Leeanna Walsman) feels paint-by-numbers for this type of film, but Sam’s eventual friendship with an energetic kayaking instructor (the always delightful Rachel House) surprises.

While the arrival of a weak baby bird who needs the kind of love only an ailing mother can provide seems, well, not very random in the movie world, Ivin mines its for unexpected pathos. As Sam starts to spread her own wings, the film also opens up, moving out of the cozy house and into a bright, gorgeous world that often feels quite scary, for both Sam and Penguin. Dramas pile up, some obvious, some not, and “Penguin Bloom” meanders a bit before coming in to land. The path there might be predictable, but there is still something beautiful when it really takes flight.

Grade: B-

“Penguin Bloom” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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