‘Penguin Bloom’ Review: Relearning to Fly

Anyone paying a smidge of attention to the early scenes of “Penguin Bloom” should be able to write the ending — and most of what precedes it — long before it arrives. Yet predictability isn’t the only problem with this based-on-true-life drama, one that underscores every sentiment and tugs every heartstring with wincing insistence.

When a 2013 accident in Thailand leaves Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts) unable to walk, her husband, Cameron (Andrew Lincoln), and three young sons struggle to dislodge her depression. The family’s idyllic beachfront home in Sydney, Australia, only reminds Sam of her love of surfing and the limitations of her wheelchair. Even her little woolen hats droop despondently. Then the children bring home an injured magpie chick, name it Penguin, and turn it loose to work its feathery magic.

Adapted from a 2016 memoir by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive, “Penguin Bloom” is a recovery story that leaves no room for subtlety. The book’s wonderful photographs (Bloom is a professional photographer) tell their own genuinely heartwarming story. But the director Glendyn Ivin can’t resist shaping Sam’s pain into simplistic melodrama, illustrating grief and anger with scenes that, even if true, come across as graceless metaphors: The glass picture frames Sam furiously smashes, scattering images of her previously athletic life; the jar of honey she pushes off a bench and onto the floor — the same sticky substance that will show up, in a later scene, to paralyze Penguin’s wings.

It’s with some relief, then, that we encounter the marvelous Rachel House as Gaye, who teaches Sam kayaking with a side of buck-up-and-get-on-with-it. (Gaye’s glancing presence is a mere nod to the major athletic milestones Sam would go on to achieve — successes that would seem to warrant more than a few notes at the end of the movie.) Less welcome is the decision to give the eldest son, Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston), a wistful voice-over. Ivin’s previous work for television — in 2018 alone, he directed two taut mini-series, “Safe Harbour” and “The Cry” — proves his skills, yet Noah’s musings feel disappointingly manipulative.

Gamely navigating a script that ushers her from seaside despair to hilltop elation, Watts gives a touching and blessedly understated performance, assisted by Sam Chiplin’s warmly expansive cinematography. As for the bundle of scene-stealing magpies (patiently trained by Paul Mander) who collectively bring Penguin to life, they’re a delight. And more entertaining than the entirety of “Dolittle.”

Penguin Bloom
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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