There is a small but obvious detail I noticed in the closing credits for “Penguin Bloom,” director Glendyn Ivin’s latest feature available on Netflix this week: “Magpie Trainer: Paul Mander.” It’s a rare case to see a magpie trainer can get recognized in the credits, while this also means Paul Mander deserves our appreciation for his professional work in the film. And the magpie here in the film deserves a star credit just like the dogs from Oscar-winning “The Artist” and Tarantino’s love letter “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” (Though the magpie is actually portrayed by eight different magpies)
Based on the best-selling non-fiction book “Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird That Saved a Family” by Bradley Trevor and Cameron Bloom, who co-wrote the book to share the heartbreaking yet inspiring tale of her wife Sam Bloom – paralyzed from the chest down in an accident on a family vacation in Thailand in 2013 – the film is a story about grief, resilience, and recovering that lands on some familiar cheesy-dramatic beats.
The always talented Naomi Watts plays the athletic Sam, enjoying the vacation with her husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln, “The Walking Dead”) and their young sons Noah (the newcomer Griffin Murray-Johnston), Reuben (Felix Cameron) and Oli (Abe-Clifford Barr) in Thailand. But then Sam falls off the balcony and breaks her backbone, she’s left paralyzed in a wheelchair (it’s the second time Watts has played a character encounters accident on a family vacation in Thai, the first is the tsunami disaster “The Impossible” in 2012, both films are based on true stories). She’s deeply depressed, helpless, and pushes her loved ones away. “It’s like Mum was stolen from us,” Noah, who narrates the film, points out the emotional status of her mother being rage and anxious, and closing herself from her supportive husband and boys who need their mother.
Enters Penguin, a black-and-white magpie that is injured by falling down from the nest. The Bloom boys bring the magpie back and named it Penguin because of its color. Penguin needs to be cared, and Sam desires to be able to care for someone like she used to. The story can’t be more obvious that Sam will eventually find hope and courage from caring for the injured Penguin. The parallels and metaphor here are clear, yet director Ivin finds some lovely messages to deliver.
At first, when the boys bring the bird home, Sam is not satisfied with it, but she later relates to Penguin. She tells Noah, also works as her own statement: “She’s a wild bird, which means she can’t stay here forever,” and “She doesn’t want to be stuck inside, does she?” The duty of caring and supporting the bird makes her feel like a mother again, while her boys, especially Noah, also feel the distance from their mother is shortening during the process.
“Penguin Bloom,” in the end, is a simple drama of the emotional state after tragedy and how love can heal us from depression. The eye-catching cinematography from Sam Chiplin turns the scene bright and sun-shining as Sam opens up herself and Penguin starts to spread her wings. Even though the characters’ arc and their journeys are predictable, the film is still able to take off and fly high at some point.
- Distributor: Netflix
- Production: Made Up Stories and Broadtalk
- Director: Glendyn Ivin
- Writer: Shaun Grant and Harry Cripps
- Producer: Emma Cooper, Steve Hutensky, Jodi Matterson, Bruna Papandrea, and Naomi Watts
- Cast: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Griffin Murray-Johnston, Felix Cameron, Abe Clifford-Barr, and Jacki Weaver
- “Penguin Bloom” premiered at 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Available on Netflix Jan. 27, 2021
Read the review in Chinese