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Sundance 2023 Review: Blueback – “A family-friendly film with solid messaging”

It’s no secret that our oceans are in trouble.  With such dangers as plastic accumulation, oil spills, and climate change the ecosystem of our waters is in crisis.  Not the least of which is the drastic damage being done to coral reefs through a process called bleaching, something influenced by this pollution and rising temperatures.  It are these ocean habitats that interest the main character in writer-director Robert Connolly‘s feature Blueback.

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The film is based on the 1997 novella by Australian author Tim Winton.  While a fictional story, its messaging about the importance of environmental protections has never been more true nor timely.  The film version swaps out the book’s protagonist, Abel, for Abby (played as an adult by Mia Wasikowska).  We meet her diving in the middle of the ocean, collecting samples from a dead and dying coral reef for study.  It’s here that she learns her mother has had a serious stroke, and heads back to her childhood home on the coast of Western Australia to assist her recovery.

The film transitions back and forth from present to past, starting from when Abby (played by Ariel Donoghue) celebrates her eighth birthday.  She lives in a house right on the ocean with her mother, Dora (Radha Mitchell), an enthusiastic environmentalist, who on this special day decides her daughter is ready, and takes her out to test her diving skills.  Trepidatious at first, Abby gains confidence and it’s on this outing that the two, while holding their breath for much longer than I ever could, meet a Western Blue Grouper that she affectionately names Blueback.  She is eight years old after all, so we forgive her literal naming.

As Abby grows, (played in teenaged form by newcomer Ilsa Fogg) she continues to study all the creatures encountered on those dives with her mother.  But none, is so special to her as Blueback.  Being a fish that can live decades and is apt to stay in one place, Abby forges a special friendship with Blueback, and she visits it often. It’s this love of the ocean and its creatures, especially Blueback, which leads mother and daughter to take on a developer keen to profit from the land and poaching of its waters.  And while Blueback doesn’t know it, it’s is a fish after all, the bond it shares with Abby will ultimately shape her life and its purpose.

Writer-director Robert Connolly creates a family-friendly film with solid messaging.  Yet, it suffers from its sluggish pacing, despite some relatively solid performances and some lighter moments with Eric Bana who plays a local fisherman.  Blueback screens as one of three offerings in the Kids program at Sundance this year, albeit there’s nothing to specifically restrict it to younger viewing. In fact, many young ones are likely to find the film slow moving and may be apt to lose interest (indeed some of the older viewers may have this issue too).  The brilliant underwater shots showcasing the beauty of this Australian coastline may help to bring things back into focus, but there just isn’t a lot going on for the first half of the film to really grip you.

The non-linear storytelling doesn’t help this film, as it takes away from any tension and unpredictability that could have made the film more compelling from a dramatic aspect.  For instance, when developers threaten Abby and Dora’s idyllic home, we already know they win the battle, as the future timeline shows the same house and the same setting.  While Mia Wasikowska is certainly great in the film, the adult Abby’s timeline is almost not needed.  It is certainly not as interesting as watching the world through the Abby who is growing up to appreciate the fascinations of the ocean.   Though, from the beginning we know she ends up studying the reef.  There is just no wonder needed here, any questions are answered almost before they can be formed.

Ilsa Fogg, makes it hard to believe that this is her first feature film.  As the teenaged Abby she certainly shines, making her version of the character the most engaging.  Technically speaking, acting with a scuba mask on and needing to hold your breath for long periods of time is likely difficult.  But her scenes under the water are well managed and shot, especially with her giant fish co-star.  Blueback, is as important a character as any in this film and they actually used a mechanized puppet in concert with a team of underwater camera operators.  It’s nice not to just have a CGI stand in here.  It allows the actors to more closely interact in the water with the creature and create a more nuanced bond.

While I can wholeheartedly appreciate Blueback‘s affable way of presenting important ideas of marine protections, the film itself lacks a little bit of that emotional impact to become truly affecting.  There are many good components here, they just don’t seem to gel in a way that utilizes their full potential.  That said, the film ends on a relatively hopeful note, one where our actions can help save the oceans and its inhabitants, so if Blueback inspires children, or adults for that matter, to make better choices, to advocate for the environment, then its true purpose will have been met.

Blueback has in person screenings only at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, with a theatrical run slated for February 24, 2023.

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