Biopics can be hit or miss. Often they verge on inspiration for exploitation’s sake, focusing on trauma and overcoming it. But every now and again, they can hit you differently. The line between telling someone’s story and turning into exploitation is a fine line to walk. Netflix’s newest biopic Penguin Bloom is based on the life of Samantha Bloom and the book written about her and her family by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Taylor Grieve walks it.
The film is directed by Glendyn Ivin, centers on Samantha (Naomi Watts) who, in 2013 fell, off a rooftop while vacationing in Thailand with her husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) and their three sons. While enjoying a view, Sam fell off due to what was later determined to be a rotted railing which broke her vertebrae in two places. Paralyzed from the chest down, Sam—a lifelong outdoorswoman, surfer, and traveler—was unrecognizable to herself. The film takes place in the time after her accident, focussing on her depression and her acceptance of herself, spurred particularly when her children brought home a wounded baby magpie. Warily eyeing the black-and-white bird the kids affectionately named “Penguin,” Sam bonds with the household’s newest member. She begins a process of emotional healing that surprised her husband and sons. While they couldn’t get through to her through her depression, Penguin did.
If you do a quick Google search of Samantha Bloom you’ll find that she is now an action sports competitor in kayaking and surfing. But Penguin Bloom isn’t about how she “overcame adversity” to become who she “used to be.” No. The film is about something deeper, and something I experienced watching my grandmother, who we lived with for parts of the ye,ar lose her leg. Like Sam, my grandma had defined her life by what she could do for her kids: standing at the stove cooking a meal for dozens of her family members, working in the garden pulling weeds, and for a while, she believed she couldn’t do any of that anymore. Like my grandma, Sam didn’t think that she could be who she was, and as such, is angry and scared.
Over the course of the film, Sam doesn’t recover the use of her legs, but what she does recover is a sense of self, even when those closest to her, like her mother, refuse to see her as capable. The film itself is simple. We watch Sam care for an injured bird and in doing so, care for herself. The important takeaway from the film is about acceptance and not viewing disability as taking something from you.
The film tells Sam’s story while allowing it to be a story not about “overcoming” a disability but learning how to be you again. You’re not someone new, you just have to do things differently. But that process can be painful and long. Sam’s story is about that process, the way you can grieve the things you have to differently, but also how you can continue to live your life. Instead of presenting Sam as learning herself, and in fact, teaching her husband, mother, and others in her family that she is still the same Sam.
It’s hard for me to put into words why watching Penguin Bloom is like reliving my grandma’s recovering from her strokes and leg amputation. I saw my grandma in Sam. The sadness, the stubbornness, and the love. The onset of the film feels like it’ll be about this adorable bird and how an animal can take care of people while being taken care of. But this really isn’t a story about Penguin.
Additionally, because Sam’s injury came from an accident that the family was present for, we also get to see the guilt that her children feel, their fear, and how they learn with their mother in the process as well. But it should be pointed out that while Watts’ acting is emotional and intimate, she is still an able-bodied actress. Which leads Netflix to yet again, not cast a disabled actor in a role depicting a story about disability.
While the end of the film tells the audience that Sam is now an athlete again, that wasn’t the core of the story, and to be honest, that’s what keeps this story from being inspiration for exploitation’s sake. If anything, Penguin Bloom is a story made to let viewers know it’s okay to process your medical and physical trauma at your own pace, but that you have to process it. And ultimately, you have to understand that you are no less you because you can’t do certain things. For that, this is a great film to watch.
Penguin Bloom is streaming now, exclusively on Netlfix.
While the end of the film tells the audience that Sam is now an athlete again, that wasn’t the core of the story, and to be honest, that’s what keeps this story from being inspiration porn. If anything, Penguin Bloom is a story made to let viewers know it’s okay to process your medical and physical trauma at your own pace, but that you have to process it. And ultimately, you have to understand that you are no less you because you can’t do certain things.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.