For the second time in less than ten years Naomi Watts is playing a woman injured while in Thailand. In “The Impossible” she was nominated for an Academy Award for playing a woman whose luxurious Thai holiday is turned to tragedy by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that claimed 230,000 lives.
Now she stars in “Penguin Bloom,” the based-on-a-true story of a woman paralyzed after a fall during a Thai family vacation.
“Penguin Bloom” has considerably less action than “The Impossible” but both are about a family’s ability to pull together in times of crisis.
Watts is Samantha Bloom, a once active mother and athlete, now confined to a wheelchair after a fall left the lower two-thirds of her body paralyzed. Back home in New South Wales she has trouble adjusting to her new normal, despite support from her immediate family, husband Cameron (“The Walking Dead’s” Andrew Lincoln), Jan (Jacki Weaver) and kids, Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) who asked for his mother to sightsee with him that fateful day and now feels responsible for her injury, Oli (Abe Clifford-Barr) and Rueben (Felix Cameron).
When Noah brings an injured magpie home, nicknamed Penguin because of her black and white coloring, Samantha doesn’t want the bird in the house. Soon, however, Penguin becomes a guardian angel of sorts, giving Sam companionship and inspiration. If the bird can heal herself, Sam reasons, so can I.
“Penguin Bloom” is a story of healing written in broad strokes. It is an unabashed feel-good movie that feels a bit too on-the-nose from time to time—”It must be weird to have wings, but not be able to fly,” they say about Penguin, but the dual meaning is not lost on anyone.—but warmth and nice performances ultimately win the day.
Weaver is a pleasure, as always, and the younger kids bring a spark of adolescent realism to the events, but the movie belongs to Watts, who effectively portrays the mix of anger, frustration and tenderness that make her character compelling and Murray-Johnston as Noah, in his debut performance. The young actor brings a heartbreaking mix of kindness and regret to the role as he struggles with his feelings of responsibility.
“Walking Dead” fans will be disappointed that Lincoln is given little to do, but it is a relief to see him play a role that doesn’t require him to be covered in viscera.
“Penguin Bloom’s” story of struggle and survival, both human and avian, is predictable but, just as Penguin learns to take to the skies through trial and error, the film takes some wrong steps but ultimately makes your spirit soar.