This Is One Scenic, Heartwarming Film to Savor
Interspecies friendship, mesmerizing underwater photography, and grounded performances elevate Blueback to something more than might expect it to be. The heartwarming film comes from Australian director Robert Connolly, who made a dent with the international wonder that was The Dry. With Blueback, Connolly also shares screenwriting credit with Tim Winton, who penned the 1997 novella that originally garnered attention. Together, these men take the best of both their mediums—film and books—to create a charming family-friendly film shot in Western Australia’s sublime Bremer Bay.
From the onset, you suspect Blueback might be mesmerizing. The opening shots introduce us to a fascinating ocean world—stunning coral reefs, colorful schools of fish—where marine biologist Abby (Mia Wasikowska of Alice in Wonderland and Crimson Peak) is scuba diving and studying coral reefs that have been impacted by environmental disarray. It’s all dazzling eye candy and a primer for the wonder the audience later experiences in a story that also stars Eric Bana (Dirty John, Star Trek) and Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Girl at the Window).
Several themes work side by side in Blueback. There’s ocean life preservation and the pitfalls of overdevelopment, but the core of the story is the unique, if not unlikely, friendship between young Abby (played with nuance by Ariel Donoghue and Ilsa Fogg) and a large blue groper she eventually names “Blueback.” Like 2020’s Netflix hit documentary My Octopus Teacher, this film illuminates the intelligence of other species and the fascinating bond people and animals can form. But how it all plays out may surprise you.
Dive Deep and Explore
Connolly and Winton stay true to the source material in Blueback and mature it for all audiences—at the time, the original book catered to teens. After receiving news of her mother, Dora’s stroke, Abby leaves her scientific research vessel and returns to the coastal town of her childhood. Here, memories of her childhood and her mother’s environmental passions come to the surface. She recalls what originally inspired her to become a marine biologist.
Part of that decision had a lot to do with Abby’s environmental activist single mum (played by Mitchell in the past; Elizabeth Alexander in present day). But the unique friendship she forms with a stunning blue groper when she was eight years old certainly filters into the mix. Blue gropers we’re told, can live up to 70 years, live in the same place most of their lives, and can change sex when they hit puberty—they’re like dogs of the sea. It’s all wildly intriguing for Abby at the ages we see her. Knowing that they’ve stumbled upon a rare find with Blueback, Dora tells Abby: “The only way to make sure that he’s safe, is to keep him a secret.”
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Eric Bana plays Macka here, a gruff and spunky yet likable fishermen/pal of Dora’s—he’s known as Mad Macka among locals. The actor, who also starred in Connelly’s The Dry, does well with what he’s given here, and when it seems like his character seems insignificant to the tale, the filmmaker surprises the audience, and we realize just how important Macka is to the story.
Wasikowska and Mitchell shine throughout, and it’s important to note that great subtleties in Connolly’s storytelling. There are no dramatic overtures, no preachy environmental banter. Even the amount of screen time Blueback is given—the fish was created by state-of-the-art mechanized puppetry from the team behind King Kong: Alive on Broadway and the How to Train Your Dragon arena show—seems less than you might suspect. But a little goes a long way in Blueback.
There’s a Deeper Message in Blueback
As the story unfolds, Blueback drifts back and forth from past to present. Most at stake in the past is the threat of overfishing in the protected bay and overdevelopment led by a man called Costello (Erik Thomson at his greedy, greasy best). As teen Abby watches her fiery mum stand up to these developers, she wonders if she’ll ever have the kind of courage her mother has. “When it comes to standing up for what you believe,” Dora tells Abby after the police bring her back home from a protest, “there is no place for cowards.” Let that sink in, Abby.
There’s a nice and fittingly trim suspenseful scene toward the film’s final moments. It’s just enough for audiences to realize how deeply invested they’ve become in the characters. And Blueback for that matter. Connolly captures the friendship between fish and human to winning ends. There is light physical contact, touches, bumps on the nose, and what actually looks like a hug at one point. That it didn’t come across as corny is a testament to the filmmaker.
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In an era where sequels, and Marvel and DC films, dominate the cineplex, it’s refreshing to float across this wonder of a film. Simply told with just enough creative finesse, Blueback is a refreshingly embraceable heartwarming tale to savor.
Look for Blueback, from Quiver Distribution, in theaters March 3.