Stellar performance by Naomi Watts, balance of anguish, triumph elevate ‘Penguin Bloom’

It’s incredible how many good and great movies Naomi Watts has made: “The Impossible,” “While We’re Young,” “Birdman,” “St. Vincent,” “King Kong,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Eastern Promises,” “The Glass Castle” — among many others.

To this impressive list we can add “Penguin Bloom,” a sensational 2020 feature that is currently streaming on Netflix.

In this true-life story, the accomplished actress plays a woman grappling with paralysis from the chest down. Active wife, surfer and mother of three busy boys, Sam cannot resign herself to lying in bed, needing constant help, wrestling with a wheelchair and catheter — and especially being unable to help with family needs and crises. Some of this is exacerbated by Sam’s tactless, over-eager mother (Jacki Weaver), and by the way one son, Noah, blames himself for Mom’s accident.

When this oldest boy adopts an injured female magpie, Mom at first resists its charms, convinced the home has enough problems — and perhaps also uncomfortable with the way this bird’s helplessness mirrors her own. But the aptly named Penguin (because of its black-and-white coloring) gradually fills a hole in Sam’s life, not only needing real care but also inspiring perseverance — especially since she was born to fly but can’t.

No doubt this set-up sounds sentimental and potentially heavy-handed. Yet for some reason, the use of Penguin as a marker for Sam never feels labored or artificial — not even when the bird suffers a major setback for which, once again, Noah feels responsible.

Besides these evocative symbols, “Penguin” offers a stellar lead performance from Watts, a radiant presence who here — as she did in the Oscar-nominated “Impossible” — submits to looking less-than-lovely through many struggles. She is beautifully supported by “Walking Dead’s” Andrew Lincoln as her loyal husband; by Griffin Murray-Johnston as Noah; and by no less than 10 different birds playing the lovable “Peng.” (Sit through the credits for great photos of the real Blooms and their pet.)

Gorgeous cinematography is highlighted by handsome use of sun and sea, including one stunning reverse-dive sequence filmed underwater. The movie also features a fine score and soundtrack including the Beatles, Radiohead, “Louie Louie,” Chicago and Colin Hay.

But what’s most impressive is that for all its anguish, “Penguin Bloom” is suffused with hope and triumph; at least three scenes are all but certain to elicit a well-earned burst of tears.

Thematically, perhaps its biggest takeaway is the danger of defining yourself by deeds and abilities, rather than relationships and inherent personhood.

It’s a potent reminder at a time when many of us still feel like we aren’t accomplishing much.


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