Review by Sean Boelman
Penguin Bloom is the type of uplifting, crowd-pleasing drama that is clearly made with a particular family audience in mind. Yet despite the best efforts of the cast and crew involved, it too often falls into cliché to be more than passable, and is almost made to be outright unlikable because of an annoying bird.
The film tells the story of a family with a paralyzed mother whose lives are changed when they take in an injured magpie to rehabilitate it back to help. The comparison between the recovery of the bird and the revitalization of the protagonist after her accident is obvious and didactic, and sadly gets too caught up in being motivational to be a strong narrative in its own right.
Based on a book co-written by the husband of the protagonist, something must have been lost through the translation of this story to the screen because so much of the script consists of generic motivational drama tropes. The hopeful message at the center of the movie is nice, but hardly has the substance to justify its existence.
For the most part, the film follows the familiar beats of the pessimistic protagonist learning to love again. There are definitely some moments in the movie that work really well, like a subplot in which the protagonist trains to be able to kayak again, but the family drama at its core is too basic to land.
The film definitely would have benefitted from developing the supporting characters with more depth. For this story to work, we needed to actually care about the protagonist’s relationship with her family. And while it is easy to feel bad for her children who had effectively lost their mother despite her still being alive, the movie fails to make that relationship work on both sides.
Naomi Watts’s performance in the lead role is the only thing that keeps this film afloat. Her performance is thankfully subtle in a movie that deals heavily in cheesiness. Andrew Lincoln is also good as her husband, but his role is simply too small. Jacki Weaver and Rachel House are memorable in bit parts as well.
That said, the make-it-or-break-it part of this film will be the bird. Some may find it to be cute, but others (this critic included) will find its constant cawing to be more grating than endearing. And since the bird eventually becomes a supporting character in the movie named after it, one wonders why the filmmakers couldn’t just have it shut the hell up.
There is an audience for Penguin Bloom, and that audience will enjoy it for the straightforward drama that it is. But those hoping that this cast would bring something different to the genre will be sorely disappointed, as it is average at best and irritating at worst.
Penguin Bloom screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which ran September 10-19.