Originally premiering as part of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last year, Penguin Bloom is based on a true story — Samantha Bloom’s story. The screenplay is adapted from the book written by her husband, Cameron, and Bradley Trevor-Grieve Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird Who Saved a Family.
There are spoilers for Penguin Bloom beyond this point.
Penguin Bloom follows Sam (Naomi Watts), Cameron (Andrew Lincoln), and their three children — Reuben (Felix Cameron), Oli (Abe Clifford-Barr), and Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) — as they enjoy a family vacation in Thailand that quickly goes awry when Sam suffers from an accident because she leaned on a rotting railing which caused her to hurtle and fracture her vertebrae. This accident leaves her paralyzed from her neck down. As Sam adjusts to her new life, she struggles not only mentally and physically, but also to appreciate her family that is trying all that they can to connect with her.
But it’s not just Sam who is struggling — Cameron acts as an extremely caring and devoted husband and if not for him, Sam finds it hard to even drag herself out of bed and to her wheelchair. This is the first project Lincoln has involved himself in since The Walking Dead’s conception in 2010, and while this story is worlds different than his usual zombie fighting storylines, he steps into the shoes of Cameron and adds the perfect amount of heart to the character. Her sons also have a hard time adapting to this new life, especially their oldest son Noah, who feels as though the whole thing is his fault.
An unlikely character to some turns out to be the most important to the story. On a trip to the beach (this is Australia after all), the boys discover a stray magpie that they name Penguin and take in to nurse it. At first, Sam is particularly indifferent to the bird, mostly because she believes that it belongs in the wild and not in their home, but as she tends to Penguin’s needs more and more, she begins to focus on the bird’s hurt and struggles instead of her own. Although Penguin doesn’t necessarily come into the story as a fix-it type, whether the chick is knocking things over or getting trapped in a honey bin, it does give the Bloom family (and quite frankly the viewers) a distraction as the story navigates through the hardships.
Another important part of Sam’s story is the introduction of Gaye. Before Sam was injured, she loved the water and nature, she was an avid surfer and swimmer. Naturally, Cameron tries to get her back to a sense of normalcy and have her enjoy that aspect of her life again. Enter Gaye, the water sports instructor that would help Sam to go on and reach many milestones and accolades. Although the film only shows a fraction of Gaye and Rachel House’s portrayal, House gives the tough love attitude that Watts’ Sam needs to succeed and ultimately, she is the real game-changer for Sam.
Of course one of the most shining performances in the film is by Watts. Oftentimes in films where trauma and disability are at the forefront of the story, accuracy can get pushed aside very easily. Penguin Bloom depicts an accurate representation of spinal injury through and through. With Watts, not only is her portrayal convincing, she is playing a real woman that at one point believes she has lost everything … until she begins to find herself again.
Penguin Bloom is a beautifully inspiring story about reevaluating your circumstances and coming back together with your family — that when you reclaim parts of yourself that you think you’ve lost, you have to have the resilience to face the dark days just as much as the good ones.
Penguin Bloom is available to stream on Netflix globally.