Film Review: Blueback (dir. Robert Connolly)
Going into Blueback and this Australian drama already feels like a bit of a relic. A film of another time—and for more reasons than one.
Family films feel incredible rare these days. Oh sure, there are movies made for children, and movies made for teenagers, and movies made for children and teenagers that older, grown-up audiences can also enjoy and admire as quality cinema. But rare is the movie that appears tailor made for families to sit down and watch as a unit without the safety net of animation or fantasy. Films that revolve around everyday kids that embrace complex themes up close and up front and in ways that replicate the very real messiness and mundaneness of real life, not hidden behind walls of affluence or the high-gloss, artificial make believe that American mainstream movies feel as if they are embracing more and more.
Robert Connolly’s first film since The Dry is this (amusingly) very wet family drama, adapted from Tim Winton’s book of the same name. Told across two different time periods (each before the time of smartphones and social media), we watch Abby as both a teenager (Ilsa Fogg) and adult (Mia Wasikowska) as she grows up along the Western Australian coast, a stretch of which she lives with mother Dora (Radha Mitchell) in her younger years, learning about the sea as a home, a haven and a place of miraculous beauty. When she returns later following her mother’s stroke (now played by a silent yet expressive Elizabeth Alexander) she has become a renowned marine biologist of sorts, attempting to solve the heating oceans that are killing coral reefs and the ecosystems around them.
Having lost her pearl-diving father early in life hasn’t hampered Abby. The circle of life and all of that presumably. She assists in trying to protect the ocean and makes friends with her own Payakan, a large blue groper fish she calls Blueback.
It's probably no surprise that Blueback is beautifully lensed. Australian film technicians have more or less mastered water-based cinematography, and Rick Rifici’s underwater camerawork here is typically sublime and proves why he so regularly gets hired for this sort of gig (2022’s doc Facing Monsters and Simon Baker’s own Tim Winton adaptation Breath being prime examples). Rifici assists Andrew Commis, whose bright but often deceptively intimate work continues his own enviable career as one of the country’s finest working cinematographers (his other work includes The Rocket, Girl Asleep, High Ground and Beautiful Kate). Their work is aided by Nigel Westlake’s score, Lien See Leong’s subtle and lived-in costume design, and, maybe most impressively, the animatronic work that brings the titular reef fish to life.
In a change from the Winton novel, the protagonist of Abby has been written away from Abel, a boy. It’s a nice shift in an effort to diversify the Winton universe that often feels suffocatingly male. Although, I do wonder what the movie would feel like if it had remained as it was in the novel (which I have not read, I must admit)—a mother and son relationship may have actually been really nice and unique in an industry that often uses the gruff exterior of Aussie men to represent the old ways of Australia far too obviously. I would have been interested to see how Connolly reflected the changing of such things with a mother as the adult force to a teenage son. That’s not to take away from Fogg, who gives the strongest performance here (or Ariel Joy Donaghue as pre-teen Abby in its opening scenes), but it appears to be a concession to the idea that boys probably wouldn’t want to see Blueback either way (due to unconscious bias or just the general trend of movie-watching these days skewing away from titles like this), which is disappointing.
Blueback covers a lot of themes, and can be heavy handed in it. And sometimes the flashback structure undercuts its own drama. But I found I didn’t care too much. Connolly, who also wrote the adaptation with further additions by Winton himself, has crafted a beautiful film about loss and change, and that period in a young adult’s life where they are on the precipice of their future and it doesn’t have to entirely revolve around sex or popularity. It very clearly wants its audience, young and older, to consider and discuss environmental issues and the idea that it’s not too late to make a difference. Something that locally produced documentaries about the youth-led climate action movement such as Wild Things have also attempted.
And the movie is lovingly Australian, too. How great to hear these accents from these bodies in a story that isn’t just for grown up audiences (Babyteeth, for instance, isn’t a film too many people the age of its lead characters are going to actually watch). There is obviously a place for the likes of Heartbreak High in the industry to represent younger Australians, but it felt comforting to see it here in a story such as this, too. Blueback, the most surprisingly perfect double-feature pairing with James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water that you’re ever likely to see. I think Cameron would shed a tear or two here. I certainly did.