TIFF 2020: Penguin Bloom (2020)

Directed by: Glendyn Ivin. Starring: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Rachel House. Runtime: 1h 35 min. Released: This film played at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12, 2020.

The Bloom family is tested after its matriarch, Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts), falls off a roof during a vacation in Thailand. She breaks her back and the family needs to heal from the trauma, and coinciding with this recovery is her oldest son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) bringing home an injured magpie, the titular Penguin Bloom.

The film incorporates cute comedy during nursing Penguin back to health, as well as family drama about the family adjusting to Sam’s new living conditions. We’re treated to exposition that Sam was adventurous and her now being in a wheelchair makes her feel worthless.

Naomi Watts is great as the real-life Sam Bloom. She plays the emotional vulnerability so well as she tries to find her worth again. There’s one great, small moment in this film where she doesn’t feel needed by her children as they call for their dad, Cam (Andrew Lincoln), in the middle of the night instead of her. Just the idea of her not being able to get out of bed quickly to check on them is crushing. “What if I can’t be a mom?” she asks Cam.

The way she feels so isolated comes through well in this scene. By the way, Andrew Lincoln and Watts have a strong chemistry and Lincoln gets his chance to shine in a couple of key scenes, though Watt’s a powerhouse and surely overshadows Lincoln. The more interesting character than the husband here is their son, Noah, and his perspective represents the kids trying to cope with the change in their mom. This is encapsulated in one line very well by Noah: “It’s hard to believe what happened, it was like mom was stolen from us…”

He lists the things she used to be able to do, and now they’re trying to get used to that change of their family dynamic being different. All of these beats are repeated in different ways throughout the film so it does get a bit repetitive. There are about four scenes here that are profoundly moving and notable; and otherwise, the film just has solid drama throughout until those emotional punches really hit.

There’s a profound beauty in this story that comes from Penguin the magpie – named Penguin for her black and white feathers – and how her journey to recovery and Sam’s recovery are mirrored throughout. Penguin needs to learn how to fly again after falling; and Sam needs to learn how to get her courage back. “It must be strange to have wings but not be able to fly,” says Noah; and mirroring that, it’s heartbreaking that Sam is a surfer who lives by the water. Sam and Penguin’s mirrored frustration is just a cool parallel throughout the film. Penguin also has some fun moments because she’s always so cute, and there’s some little cute comedy when Sam has to search through the house for Penguin. Their camaraderie, too, is great.

Director Glendyn Ivin makes you feel all this in a strong feature directorial debut, too, and while this is a by-the-books story about overcoming trauma, it’s adapted well for the screen by Harry Cripps and Shaun Grant, based on the book by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive. It’s a simple and effective story of a bird needing the family and the family needing the bird and needing something to take care of and put their energy in.

Rachel House has a memorable supporting performance here in the second half of the film when she helps Sam find her worth again, and she doesn’t have a lot of scenes but she makes a lasting impression. Penguin Bloom will leave a lasting impression, too. The emotions in this film don’t go into everything too deeply, but it touches on everything enough to satisfy. It’s lovely and touching throughout, and I’m a total sap for anything that touches my heart and Penguin Bloom really did that for me, assisted by a wonderful Naomi Watts.

Score: 75/100

Update: This review has been updated to reflect that this is Glendyn Ivin’s debut feature film directorial debut. 

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