Based on the inspirational true story of Sam Bloom, a wife and mother whose life was forever changed when a freak accident in Thailand left her paralysed, Penguin Bloom chronicles her harrowing journey of rehabilitation. It’s a remarkable story that’s made all the more incredible by the addition of Penguin, an injured magpie that bonds itself to Sam and gives her a most unlikely source of motivation.

Reviewing a film like Penguin Bloom makes for light work because it is simply wonderful. Starring Naomi Watts as Sam, Andrew Lincoln as her husband Cameron and Jacki Weaver as her mother Jan, the film looks as though it were lifted straight out of a Tim Winton novel, with an immediately striking quality that’s distinctive to Australian cinema. With its beachfront setting and windswept sands, there’s an emphasis on the natural environment surrounding the characters that feels integral to Sam’s story. Moreover, using the real Bloom home as the film’s core setting adds an important layer of authenticity.

Watts delivers a seminal performance – fully embodying the spirit of her real-life counterpart – which sees her in the grips of despair before rising triumphantly to overcome her odds. Her anguish resonates throughout the film, with rock-solid support from Lincoln and director Glendyn Ivin (TV’s Puberty Blues), who captures the Bloom family dynamic in a raw and fragile state. Watching Watts and Lincoln’s characters navigate their new reality with their three boys (perfectly played by Griffin Murray-Johnson, Felix Cameron and Abe Clifford-Barr) elevates Penguin Bloom above typical rise-above-adversity movies.

And of course there’s Penguin, the star of the show who, let’s face it, the audience is really here to see. According to Watts during a recent press junket, the filmmakers used very little CGI, instead relying on real birds which had been highly trained. If this is true, and there’s no reason to suspect otherwise, then what they have accomplished is astonishing. The performances from the feathered cast is a sight to behold, and the bond that develops between Penguin and the Bloom family is the stuff of cinematic gold.

With a PG-rating, Penguin Bloom is a mature family-friendly story that will capture the hearts of all who see it. Parents should be warned, however, that many of the themes – as well as the emotional tides of the story – are quite heavy and at times traumatic. Those expecting the same brand of feel-good mush that films like Oddball and Red Dog dished up may be startled by Penguin Bloom‘s impact. With that in mind, the film might just be one of the most powerful and uplifting movie-going experiences this year.

In cinemas: January 14, 2021
Starring: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Jacki Weaver
Directed by: Glendyn Ivin

Check out our interview with the real Sam and Cameron Bloom