Instead, Sam finds purpose in an unexpected place: a magpie chick that’s fallen from her nest, which the boys discovered at the beach and brought home. Noah names her Penguin for her black-and-white coloring, and while she provides a welcome distraction at first, she’s also a destructive little thing. Adorable but annoying, Penguin cheeps and chirps all day in her basket. She hops out and bops around the house, causing mischief wherever she goes: pecking at a sock monkey, knocking over vases, nicking a teabag from mum’s mug. And of course, Penguin leaves poop wherever she goes. It’s all way too wacky, but the multiple birds credited as playing Penguin clearly had thorough training.
While Sam initially isn’t thrilled by this the presence of this new pet, she eventually recognizes in Penguin a kindred spirit: “She’s a wild bird, which means she can’t stay here forever,” she says, clearly commenting on her own state, as well. Later, she asks rhetorically: “She doesn’t want to be stuck inside, does she?” Noah also relates to her, wondering “Do you miss your mum?” since he feels such a distance from his own. (Newcomer Murray-Johnston has an unusually wise and direct screen presence for a child actor, which is appealing.) Again, there’s a lot of hand-holding going on here, when simply watching Sam care for the bird and seeing how that elevates her mood should speak for itself. It makes her feel like a mother again, when so much of the parenting duty has fallen to Cameron out of sheer necessity.
So when Sam senses that Penguin wants to go outside, she ventures onto the patio, too, basking in the sunshine in her wheelchair. Conversely, when something is wrong with Sam, Penguin is the first to notice it and alert the rest of the family. The bird actually looks at her as if she understands her pain; either you’ll go with this bit of anthropomorphism, or you won’t. A lot of it depends on how transfixing you find the story at this point. Watts’ performance, however, is so visceral and nuanced that she makes you want to believe all this magpie magic is possible.
But eventually, Sam agrees to Cameron’s suggestion that she take kayaking lessons, which gives us the opportunity to enjoy the delightful Rachel House as her no-nonsense instructor. Penguin might just regain its ability to fly around the same time. While the journey there is never in doubt, “Penguin Bloom” still finds occasional opportunities to soar.
Now playing on Netflix.