THE STORY – While researching Australia’s deteriorating coral reefs, marine biologist Abby receives word of her elderly mother Dora’s stroke. As she rushes to her seaside hometown to care for Dora, Abby recalls her childhood years spent living in concert with the ocean, and her mother’s efforts to protect the bay from greedy developers and invasive fishermen alike, often to the detriment of their own relationship. Among the coral gardens, Abby also befriends a rare fish, the blue groper — affectionately named Blueback — a tether to her environmentalism, and the key to reminding Abby and Dora of their love for each another and the vulnerable waters they call home.
THE CAST – Mia Wasikowska, Radha Mitchell, Ilsa Fogg & Eric Bana
THE TEAM – Robert Connolly (Director) & Tim Winton (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 102 Minutes
If you enjoyed the deep sea friendship in the Oscar-winning documentary “My Octopus Teacher” (2020), the family drama “Blueback” may also resonate with its sentimental bond between a girl and a blue groper. While at sea on an expedition, marine biologist Abby learns that her mother has fallen ill. The news brings Abby back to her remote childhood home in Western Australia, which evokes strong memories of why Abby studies marine ecosystems in the first place. Her mother’s vocal determination to protect the oceans and preserve nature’s beauty had a life-altering impact, as did a wild blue groper named Blueback. Adapted from the 1997 novel “Blueback” by Australian writer Tim Winton, Australian writer-director Robert Connolly’s film of the same name tells an environmental story in which the titular character inspires action.
While diving as a young girl, Abby befriends Blueback, a creature that lives deep beneath the sea where a coral reef has formed over its cave. After learning that the groper’s livelihood is threatened by developers, Abby is encouraged, by her mother, to protect Australia’s coral reefs from destruction. The film jumps between flashbacks of Abby’s past and present to convey the unwavering shared passion between a daughter and her mother. The story has personal stakes with an intended universal reach. It’s also an environmental fable about the importance of respecting ocean life. The film poses questions of how far one would go and what one would sacrifice to protect nature. The core messages are admirable and expressed with passion. But the character development is limited, and the film follows a generic narrative that overstays its welcome. Even the dynamic mother-daughter duo at the heart of “Blueback” gets lost in a thematically uneven adaptation.
“Blueback,” at its core, is about a young girl who falls in love with the ocean after being taught about the importance of embracing and caring for it. The story follows Abby at three life stages – as a young girl (played by Ariel Donoghue), a teenager (played by Ilsa Fogg), and an adult (played by Mia Wasikowska). Donoghue’s child portrayal captures an early curiosity for the ocean through the character meeting Blueback for the first time. The film strongly conveys a sense of wonder and mystery in seeing the fish emerge from its reef. Fogg’s teenage portrayal charts the character’s evolution as she comes of age and gains independence while also being shaped by a sometimes conflicting relationship with her mother, Dora. Wasikowska’s adult portrayal does not appear nearly enough as hoped for in the film, but her scenes build effectively upon the younger versions of Abby. Wasikowska embodies a perspective of reflection and adds a contemplative layer to the overall relationship between Abby and Dora. Abby says goodbye to home and familiarity in order to fight for change at sea, while her mother does groundwork and confronts key figures head-on to demand immediate change. Their slightly opposing approaches to climate change are one of the ways in which Connolly questions how best to go about taking action.
The screenplay (co-written by Connolly and Winton) covers relevant points of discussion on climate change and leads with a sense of urgency. The film is also focused on generational family dynamics. It’s about the realization of how connected one is to their parents, no matter how great the distance between them. As much as it studies ocean species, “Blueback” analyzes human connections as well, and in that respect, Connolly’s direction moves at a snail’s pace to reach moments of narrative interest. He balances too many spinning plates without moving beyond one-note characterizations. The direction dives deep into ocean life with the help of stunning underwater cinematography but does not extend the same approach to the characters in this story. The screenplay leans on clichés to fill in the gaps of storytelling, and intriguing details about some central characters are not very fleshed out.
For instance, the character of Dora (played in flashbacks by Radha Mitchell and in the present by Elizabeth Alexander) represents an optimistic outlook on climate change. If Dora can convince people to appreciate the beauty of ocean species and respect the coral reefs, as she has accomplished with her daughter, perhaps people would be more inclined to make a change. In Dora’s time as an activist, she demands action from those who are pessimistic about environmental issues. She also believes in her emotional and physical dedication to the cause, refusing to leave her home in Australia. The screenplay skirts past a lot of what makes Dora an interesting character and takes a repetitive approach to showcase her perspective. Despite the underwritten role, Radha Mitchell brings a spirited energy to the flashback version of this passionate activist who influences the trajectory of her daughter’s life.
The overall cast boasts some of Australia’s finest acting talents, from Mitchell and Wasikowska to Eric Bana, who starred in Connolly’s previous film “The Dry” (2020). By comparison, Bana’s role in “Blueback” leaves far more to be desired. He plays Mad Macka, an abalone driver who manages the condition of the reefs. While the actor brings an intriguing spark to the screen, his character is abruptly written. Wasikowska has a similar fleeting effect with the adult character of Abby; the actor’s natural screen presence is undermined by the lackluster screenplay. Wasikowska’s limiting role makes you pine for the level of material she was given in Park Chan-wook’s thriller “Stoker” (2013) and, most recently, Mia Hansen-Løve’s drama “Bergman Island” (2021).
Of the “Blueback” ensemble, Mitchell and newcomer Ilsa Fogg are given the most to work with. Considering the strength of the actors’ chemistry as mother and daughter, they are among the most memorable aspects of the film due to their convincing portrayals. Also standing out are the film’s technical achievements which, for the most part, provide some genuinely gorgeous moments for the senses. The animatronic puppetry of the fish is largely impressive for its practicality. Nigel Westlake’s score, while overtly used and manipulative at times in the film, is a lovely piece of music in its own right. The underwater cinematography by Rick Rifici takes you deep beneath the water, particularly the cave system in which the groper lives.
The environmental themes in “Blueback” are incredibly urgent and speak to generations of people, but the handling of this subject through stilted dialogue makes the overall film feel disjointed. Rather than allow the urgency of the subject to speak through the characters’ emotions and actions, the connection can come across as forced. The nuances of these characters are kept at surface level and provide an excess of exposition. Connolly attempts to balance a family-friendly story with a mature sensibility but can’t entirely merge the perspectives. An environmental call to action and a mother-daughter drama are consistently at odds in the telling of “Blueback.” One scene drifts to the next without a clear indication of which story to tell at a given moment. It’s a film that makes the potentially engaging material fall flat and leaves you yearning for a gripping element to hold onto consistently. While admirable in its environmental urgency and generational telling of a personal story, “Blueback” fades from memory as a mostly forgettable experience.