A tender-hearted environmental drama about a girl who falls in love with the ocean and a mysterious giant fish while navigating a contentious relationship with her mother.
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It’s not hard to puzzle out why they make so many movies about kids bonding with a wild animal.
Beyond the fascination most youngsters have with critters, the backdrop of these movies is usually about how them having trouble relating with other people in their lives, often a parent or other family member. The love the child forms for the animal is a surrogate for the troublesome relationship they have with the person close to them.
In the case of “Blueback,” the creature is a Giant Blue Groper, a massive fish found in the coral reefs off the coast of Australia. They can grow up to six feet long and live 70 years, and sort of resemble a gargantuan version of Dory, the lovable sidekick from “Finding Nemo.”
It’s a very tender-hearted drama with an environmental theme, directed by Robert Connolly, who made the excellent but little-scene crime drama “The Dry” a few years ago starring fellow Aussie Eric Bana. Bana is also in this movie, though in a smaller supporting role. It’s based on the novel by Tom Winton, who also co-wrote the script with Connolly.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Abby Jackson, a woman who grew up in (fictional) Longboat Bay along the Western coast of Australia, practically living half of her life in the ocean. Wasikowska plays Abby in the framing device where she’s now an adult marine biologist returning to her home only reluctantly because her mom, with whom she’s been somewhat estranged, has had a stroke.
Ariel Donoghue plays Abby as a girl of age 9 and Ilsa Fogg takes over for age 15, with all three actresses sharing about the same amount of screen time. It’s a testament to them and the director that we easily believe them as all representing the same person at different stages of life. The shifts are organic rather than abrupt.
Abby is smart and serious, but also a little bit withdrawn and introverted. In this way she differs greatly from her mom, Dora, played mostly by Radha Mitchell with Liz Alexander filling in for the older portion. She’s the local firebrand and outspoken environmentalist, constantly waging protests and campaigns to keep developers from dredging Longboat Bay for a bunch of gaudy condos.
Dora is the sort of person who’s swell to be around, so long as you always agree with her.
The matching of performances isn’t quite as successful here, owing partly to the older Dora being unable (and perhaps unwilling) to speak to her daughter after her stroke. Given that the time shift is only a dozen years or so from the teen years to adult Abby, I wonder why they couldn’t have just used some age makeup on Mitchell.
Young Abby meets the titular fish, who she names Blueback, while learning to free dive as youngster. The underwater photography is quite magical — cinematography by Andrew Commis and Rick Rifici — and our hearts flutter as she swims alongside the fish and even feeds and caresses him.
Back on land, though, Abby seems embarrassed at times by her mom’s activism. They get into a huge fight when the girl doesn’t take part when Dora chains herself to a bulldozer. There’s clearly strong love between them — Abby’s dad drowned when she was little — but they just can’t see eye to eye on some important things.
She falls into a friendship with Briggs, a local Aboriginal boy played by Pedrea Jackson, that holds portents of possible romance. She meets him again upon returning home (now played by Clarence Ryan), though her mind is more focused on her mom and the dying coral reefs she’s dedicated to protecting.
Bana plays “Mad” Macka, a grizzled local fisherman who lives off his boat in the bay and acts as a goofy father figure to Abby.
That’s the whole of it. “Blueback” is really a rather simple story without a lot of big emotional moments, action scenes or plot twists. It just envelops you its mood and warmth, showing us these characters with big hearts and sometimes quarrelsome minds.