The Australian drama Blueback is equal parts earnest and frustrating. Everything about director Robert Connolly’s adaptation of a Tim Winston novella is well intentioned, looks nice, and is decently performed, but it’s also flat, lethargic, and exhausting when it should be eye opening, educational, magical, and transformative. There’s a disconnect between the heart, mind, and energy level of Blueback that makes it feel disappointing and underwhelming, even though it’s not technically doing anything worse than being boring and disjointed.
Told in flashbacks between past and present, Blueback focuses on the relationship between an ecological activist and her marine biologist daughter. While out on a research expedition, adult Abby Jackson (Mia Wasikowska) is urgently called back to her hometown after her mother, Dora (Elizabeth Alexander), the operator of a marine wildlife reserve, has suffered a stroke. Abby tries to help Dora regain her speech, and the time they spend together triggers memories of the past, when the single mother (Radha Mitchell) and daughter (Ariel Donaghue as a child and Ilsa Fogg as a teen) were inseparable allies fighting against the encroachment of corporate fisheries on their community.
Blueback refers to the most wondrous element of Connolly’s film, an enormous wild blue grouper that Abby befriends as a kid. But one would be mistaken to think of this as a story of a girl and her fish, as that thread ultimately has very little to do with the bulk of the film’s namesake. In fact, there’s so little drama in the core relationship at the heart of Blueback that it ends up being about not very much at all. Whenever disagreements arise between Abby and Dora – at any age and point in the timelines – they’re dealt with gently and swiftly. They’re on the same relative page so much of the time that the relationship doesn’t progress very much beyond the obvious. As individuals, they’re just as thin. All we really know about them is that mother and daughter are on their own, they love their community, and they want to protect it.
Despite the insistence of the film’s bombastic score, Blueback is only lightly dramatic. It’s not hard to believe that the fish itself and the score are only there to court a younger audience who might latch onto the film’s overall message about saving the environment. I’m not entirely sure what the audience for Blueback is, because the stuff set in the past is too slight (like an under-utilized Eric Bana popping up as a surly, but charming fisherman who adds little more than an eventual plot device) and childish (complete with Erik Thompson playing a greedy, suit wearing corporate stooge who gets to deliver menacing speeches), while the stuff in the present pulls a lot of punches in the emotional department and never establishes firm footing. It might be better without the thread featuring Wasikowska and Alexander, but then Blueback wouldn’t be feature length, and it would feel even slighter. Nothing meshes together in a satisfying way, but it’s not due to lack of effort on the parts of Connolly and his cast.
Every time Blueback starts building momentum in the storyline involving young Abby, the film kills it by cutting back to the ailing mother thread that isn’t as interesting. The idea of a mother imparting knowledge onto her impressionable daughter is a good one, but the tearjerking terminal illness elements feel like they’re from a completely different movie. Wasikowska is doing her best, but the more adult half of the film is stumbling to add anything of relevance. Newcomer Fogg is a confident and likeable screen presence as young Abby, and Mitchell gives the film’s best and most memorable performance as the hard headed, passionate, and tireless eco advocate. Fogg and Mitchell have such great chemistry as a mother and daughter that it almost doesn’t matter how thinly drawn they are as characters. Even when they sometimes get bogged down in several passages that involved the ins and outs of commercial fishing licenses (which isn’t terribly dramatic territory), the actors still find ways to generate compassion and empathy for the situation at hand.
Blueback is gorgeously shot both on land and below the surface of the ocean. It’s set in naturally eye catching locations, and there’s clearly some money behind this. (A special mention is necessary for the titular fish, which is a great looking practical animatronic puppet that looks just as impressive, if not better than a CGI counterpart might’ve appeared.) But too much of Blueback wheezes under the pressure of trying to create something out of nothing. The ecological messaging is the best part, and it invites the viewer to think about sustainable practices without being didactic. But maybe it needed to be more forceful, because without anything that can quicken the pulse (save for a brief moment during the climax where Blueback needs some human assistance), there’s precious little feeling throughout. Or maybe we just need more of the fish.
Blueback opens in select Canadian theatres on Friday, March 10, 2023.
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