There is a world in which the wistfully expressive Naomi Watts would be among the boldest actors working today, like her contemporaries Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman. But for every daring “Luce” or “While We’re Young,” Watts seems to have a tame “Penguin Bloom” on her résumé: middling projects with predictable beats. Still, it’s thanks to Watts’ measured performance that Glendyn Ivin’s based-on-a-true-story film — about a recently disabled Australian woman learning to navigate her new reality — mostly avoids the pitfalls of dated and offensive inspiration-porn movies of yore that supply nothing but uplifting fodder to the able-bodied.
Shrewdly, Watts goes for something subtle and soft here — instead of clichéd garishness, her performance hinges on her doleful gaze and melancholic tinge, ultimately helping “Penguin Bloom” honor its real-life character’s journey with some respect. Even so, Ivin’s mundane drama written by Haun Grant and Harry Cripps (in an adaptation of a book by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive) shows signs of its monotonous trappings and bland direction, often lacking in emotional complexity.
A conventional voiceover introduces us to the Blooms, an upper-middle-class Australian family of five vacationing at a picturesque seaside resort in Thailand. Everything was as per usual for a while, as a young narrator — one of the Bloom sons — says in his prologue. Having always loved the ocean and nature, Sam (Watts) was surfing and taking up other types of adventure sports. Cameron (“The Walking Dead” star Andrew Lincoln, not as persuasively emotive as Watts) was being his typically supportive self as a husband and father. And the couple’s three precocious sons — lovably played by newcomers Griffin Murray-Johnston, Felix Cameron and Abe Clifford-Barr — were indulging in their curiosities. But a freak accident occurred when Sam leaned on a rotting railing that broke off, causing her to fall several stories, break her vertebrae and become paralyzed from chest down. “It could have happened to millions of people. But it waited for mom,” the mournful kid tells us.
Minus the injured magpie chick that the Bloom boys find and adopt just a few months after their mom’s accident, the rest of the movie would have been straight out of a well-worn playbook, with Sam sinking into the depths of depression, negotiating with memories of her old self, resenting that fact that she can’t complete any of her daily routines by herself and secretly wondering whom to blame. All of that still happens, though thankfully the winged creature brings some bounciness along as it grows stronger and gains confidence under the care of Sam and the rest of the Blooms. Almost miraculously, the feisty bird soon acts like a part of the family, trekking on their shoulders, stealing tea bags out of their mugs and so on (tricks for which we can presumably thank the “Magpie Trainer” listed in the film’s credits).
That novel presence alleviates the film’s dullness only to a degree. And the allegorical intentions of the story around the remedial power of love and family (which hand in hand heals broken wings and spirits alike) remain trivial at best, seeming all too pedestrian when Ivin goes for uninspired visual metaphors, like dream sequences with a wheelchair sinking in deep water. Still, Watts gives the material her all, plausibly portraying Sam’s reluctance to allow her loved ones — including an overbearing yet well-meaning mother (Jackie Weaver, underutilized) — into her private suffering. As family time and friend gatherings turn awkward, Watt’s resolute face hints at someone who requires neither sympathy nor dismissal and ponders whether her husband would be able to handle all this newfound burden indefinitely. But while Watts delivers something layered and understated, the performances around her feel uneven and contrastingly melodramatic.
“Penguin Bloom” shifts in tone drastically once Sam finally gears up the will and courage to venture out to new quests, as her spunky black-and-white friend (it’s named “Penguin” for a reason) also puts up a fight to regain its ability to fly. With the encouragement of her husband, she decides to take kayak lessons from a no-nonsense instructor and like-minded outdoors-woman (Rachel House) and learn how to use her arms for improved balance and motion. Setting aside his until-then gloomy mode, cinematographer Sam Chiplin highlights the beauty of sun-dappled crystal waters in this chapter, even opening up the family’s handsomely appointed, water-view home through a more optimistic lens.
Over the years, the real Sam Bloom won water sports medals and competitions as a woman with a disability. And yet, all these unforgettable achievements become a postscript in the forgettable “Penguin Bloom,” which stays afloat on Watts’ shoulders alone.