Synopsis: Raising a baby bird helps a woman to recover from depression after a debilitating accident.
Good on Naomi Watts for shepherding Penguin Bloom, the story of her fellow Aussie Sam Bloom from page to screen. Sam’s photographer husband Cameron documented his wife’s adaptation to paralysis and her care of an orphaned baby bird, a magpie.
Magpies are an interesting life form. They are intelligent birds in the corvid family (like crows and jays) that live in Eurasia and North American. But the Australian magpie is not closely related to them, although their appearance is similar.
Magpies are omnivorous and capable singers. Rather cheeky, during breeding season males are known to aggressively swoop at joggers and bicyclists, believing they are attempting to unseat them from their territories and invade their nests. On the other hand, they exhibit many pro-social behaviors such as rallying together to fend off raptors, mates raising their brood together and juveniles playing with found objects and engaging in playful tussles and chases.
Australians are also an interesting life form. Like magpies they are omnivorous (lots of vegetarians in Melbourne though) and some are capable singers, like Kylie Minogue. They are known for their love and knowledge of the outdoors and their can-do spirit.
Humans have inhabited the continent of Australia for over fifty thousand years, successfully hunting and gathering while establishing a wide range of languages and cultural traditions encompassing religion, music, art and storytelling. Great Britain essentially invaded in the late 1700’s, seeking to establish plantations. Indigenous persons died of European diseases, displacement/loss of food and violence due to colonial conflict. (Today less than four percent of the population trace their ancestry to native inhabitants.) Early on the British began offloading convicts in Australia. Publicizing the policy was meant to deter crime at home. In 1901 Australia began inching away from the British Empire to form the Commonwealth of Australia. Basically, it means they are their own nation, but do welcome visits from the Royal family where little princes, like baby George, can grab at bilbies and haughtily toss aside plushie animal toys.
Fast forward to 2021 and the continent’s population stands at more than 25 million people– Aussies spending their time didgeridoo-ing, vegemite-ing and walkabout-ing.
Like so many of her Aussie brethren & sistren, Sam Bloom was quite athletic and loved surfing and outdoor adventuring. Enthusiasms shared by her husband (played by Andrew Lincoln) and their three young sons.
The film begins with the family convening over where to holiday. The kids want to go to Disneyland. Idk if they wanted to head off to California or Hong Kong. It’s too bad there isn’t a Disney park in Australia, but I guess Disney execs expect it would soon be overrun by kangaroos and crocodiles. The parents make their case for Thailand. Not surprisingly, the paying family members are the ones who decide. Now, I knew they shouldn’t venture to Thailand and not just because of the human trafficking and captive elephant abuse. Naomi Watts did go to Thailand in The Impossible and she and her whole movie family (including future Spider-Man, child Tom Holland) got swept away by a tsunami.
I so wish that the real Sam Bloom and her family didn’t go on that vacation. Disaster awaits. (No spoilers – see the movie to learn how Sam was injured.) An accident nearly kills her and leaves her paralyzed from the chest down. I thought, Well, at least she can still use her arms. But I understand that any suggestion that the wheelchair bound person was in anyway fortunate, would make them feel like punching said unparalyzed optimist.
After seven months of rehabilitation, Ms. Bloom was finally able to return home. But we see her struggle to pull herself from bed to wheelchair and she needs her husband’s help for much of her personal care needs. Meanwhile the boy energy in the house is sky high. The boys actually regularly jump from the roof of their house onto a trampoline. Dad tries to keep them happy with beach excursions while poor Sam sits alone in their darkened house getting more and more depressed.
One day while the boys are out gamboling about, they find a fledging magpie who has been injured in a long fall from the nest. They bring the baby birb home, and christen them Penguin for their emerging black and white feathers. The family tries to coax Sam into interacting with Penguin, but the mom feels too down to get involved. However, the kids need to go to school (probably some sports camp type of school) and the little bird is so helpless that Sam’s maternal instincts kick in. You can see on Naomi’s face, the woman’s own desperation at the same time that she is focusing on keeping the little bird alive.
Most perching bird nestlings require feeding every twenty minutes –imagine the parent birds’ workload! Even fledglings need food every two to three hours –something that human parents of newborns can relate to. Sam has her work cut out for her as Penguin grows. We see Penguin getting into all sorts of trouble in the house and squawking up a storm.
Director Glendyn Ivin filmed at the Blooms house on the coast of New South Wales where, thankfully, there are numerous wild magpies. Aussies are not allowed to keep magpies, so it seems that the footage of “Penguin” is actually done by numerous wild magpies who signed onto the movie in exchange for food and free rein of the house.
We get a, uh, birds’ eye view on the family’s challenges as Sam works to get ahead of her depression. Her husband suggests all will be well if she just starts kayaking. Naturally she glares at him, but with the love and mischief that Penguin has added to the family, she begins to feel more adventurous. I was glad that she was feeling better, but her proclivity for ocean sports had me worried. But then I thought, who better to handle an outdoor challenge than an Aussie? And if a person can patiently and steadfastly care for a baby– of any kind– they have a good chance of handling their disability as well.
P.S. In doing some background reading on magpies, I read a scandalous story that really needs a movie treatment… a researcher reported that a magpie couple of several years was raising two chicks when the male disappeared for several days. He returned with two females (homewreckers!) and evicted his family from the nest. This jerk really needs to be publicly shamed! The sympathetic researcher brought extra food to the family to help the rejected female/mom bird. Let’s conclude on a cheery note. For an aboriginal myth on magpies (and a photo of the lovely birds), click here.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Excellent, sensitive performance by Naomi Watts as Sam Bloom. Recommended for animal lovers — the magpies are adorable and fascinating.
Humor Highlight: Penguin the magpie’s antics around the house.