Taking a real-life tragedy that could be handled insensitively in the wrong hands, Glendyn Ivin’s Penguin Bloom manages to avoid ableist tropes that typify stories about overcoming accidental disability. Back in 2013, Aussie mum Sam Bloom suffered a permanent injury during a family vacation in Thailand. A sudden fall off an unsteady roof left her paralyzed from the chest down. Ever since then, she’s made it her mission to share her story as a means of inspiration. Sam wants people to never allow setbacks, even major ones, redefine their sense of self-worth. Shaun Grant’s adaptation of author Bradley Trevor Greive’s book about Sam Bloom is as tender, and life-affirming as family dramas come.
Penguin Bloom follows the shell-shocked aftermath of the incident, with Naomi Watts portraying Sam during her arduous stages of emotional recovery. Documenting a personal video essay to reconcile his guilt, Sam’s oldest boy Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston), has a nagging feeling that his mother holds him accountable for the accident. After all, it was he who insisted they venture up to the rooftop. However, her cold dejection stems from the misguided notion that her maternal capability is somehow weakened. Over time, with patience and loving affirmation, Sam realizes just how untrue that is. The toughest moms are those who don’t let obstacles get in the way of providing unconditional affection.
Watts is astounding at playing a woman exhausted by her own depression. Trying to remain resilient but unable to swallow the reality of permanent, unexpected change is anything but easy. Worse, Sam’s internal loathing starts projecting its wrath onto her doting family. Her husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) feels like he’s walking on eggshells, afraid to do activities with the boys that Sam can no longer participate in. Rather than work through their shared grief, the Blooms tiptoe around it until it becomes all-consuming. Before tensions boil over, fate whisks in an injured Magpie into their home. The brief residency of this adorable pet, affectionately named Penguin Bloom, helps keep what truly matters into perspective.
Nursing little Penguin back to health thankfully doesn’t result in spoonfuls of Disney saccharine. It takes one afternoon babysitting Penguin for Sam to recognize how essential she is, even just being around to exude protective warmth. While navigating Sam’s sorrow, Watts gives one of the most complex and moving portraits of withdrawn motherhood. Sam fears the physical damage incurred can extend to personal negligence of her children. Thankfully, the narrative never validates such distorted sentiments.
Sometimes ignorance rears its ugly head during times of immense self-doubt. In Sam’s mind, hating yourself is the ultimate preparation for dealing with a life of endless pity and mockery. Her internalized ableism reeks of self-absorption, especially since many in the disabled community don’t have the kind of support that Sam’s privilege can afford her.
Thanks to Penguin’s encouraging chirps — and some extra motivation from a local canoe instructor named Gaye (Rachel House) — Sam’s anger transforms into rediscovery. The person she thought was gone is still active and looking forward to the next great outdoor adventure. I only wish the screenplay touched more on Sam’s status as a world champion canoeist. Regardless, it’s soothing to watch a character drama about spiritual rehabilitation carry such fondness for nature. The healing power of the ocean, and its surrounding wildlife full of vitality, serve as a reminder that Earth provides eternal opportunity for fulfillment. All it takes is an absorption of love and tolerance.