In ‘Penguin Bloom,’ a Magpie Leads Naomi Watts Down the Path To Recovery

Penguin Bloom” is the latest Netflix film to feature a character overcoming tragic circumstances. Based on a true story, Naomi Watts stars as Sam Bloom, an Australian woman who becomes paralyzed from the waist down after a freak accident during a family vacation in Thailand. While her husband, Cameron (Andrew Lincoln), is beyond loving and supportive, it is a Magpie chick named Penguin who pulls her out of the darkness.

“Penguin Bloom” is narrated by Noah, (Griffin Murray-Johnston), Sam’s sensitive tween son, the oldest of her and Cameron’s three boys. Cameron is a photographer and Sam was a nurse, and the family has led a pretty charmed life up until Sam’s accident, living in a beachfront home and taking frequent vacations. But, more importantly, their household is one full of love and affection, and Sam and Cameron’s solid relationship, which began when they were teenagers, provides a strong foundation.

Noah carries a lot of guilt with him, since he was the one who yelled for his mom to climb up a tower with him and the rest of the family in Thailand. There, she leans on a fence that breaks, causing her to fall onto the ground below and break her back. Sam, understandably, is oblivious to Noah’s true feelings until late into the story, as she is caught up in her own despair.

The actors, especially Watts, give nuanced performances as the dynamics in the Bloom family change in the weeks following the accident. Cameron takes on more parenting responsibility, which causes Sam to grieve. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, she cries in bed after one of her little boys gets sick and yells for his father, as he knows his mother is unable to climb out of bed and help him. But the quiet daylight hours are the darkest for Sam, and Watts and director Glendyn Ivin show the depth of her anger and grief in affecting scenes without dialogue, such as when she knocks down a wall of photographs of her living her old life.

Soon, the boys find the injured Magpie chick, whom they name Penguin because of his black and white coloring. While her family, which also includes her mother, Jan (Jacki Weaver), and her sister, Kylie (Leeanna Walsman), attempt to get her into some type of normal routine, it is Penguin who makes her feel useful. Left alone in the house during the day while Cameron works and the kids are in school, she finds herself bonding with the bird, as her being in a wheelchair doesn’t prevent her from tending to his needs. Even when he does something that reminds the viewer that he’s a wild animal, such as when he chews up a small stuffed animal belonging to one of her boys, Penguin’s actions help Sam feel like her old self again.

Also giving Sam purpose is a new hobby, kayaking. The real Sam eventually became a kayaking champion, but this subplot is not so much about sports and competition as it is about Sam finding motivation and taking control, and Gaye (Rachel House), her instructor, proves to be an excellent guide and mentor. 

Overall, “Penguin Bloom” is a moving, contemplative and sometimes slow drama about recovery. The impressive cinematography and beautiful seaside setting also gives the film a soothing feel at times. There are obvious parallels between Sam’s journey to recovery and Penguin’s, and all of this leads to an inevitable goodbye. When one thinks of an emotional support animal, they usually think of something furry and cuddly, but our relationships with our feathered friends can be just as meaningful.

Penguin Bloom” begins streaming Jan. 27 on Netflix.