Sundance Review: Gentle “Blueback” Is a Call to Environmental Arms
Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 29th, 2023
Blueback (Robert Connolly, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
Based on Australian author Tim Winton’s 1997 novella of the same name, the new film Blueback, from writer/director Robert Connolly (The Dry), offers a gentle, occasionally thrilling, paean to nature conservation that is now more needed than ever. We jump back and forth between the present and the past as Abby (changed from a boy named Able in the book) remembers the events of her childhood that set her on a journey to become a marine scientist. Brought home by her mother’s stroke, she returns to the sheltered bay where she spent many hours in the water. Among her long-ago acquaintances was a giant blue groper, the titular “Blueback.” Her memories, and the message they bring forward to today, are filled with beautiful odes to the wonders of the planet.
Mia Wasikowska (Judy & Punch) stars as the adult Abby, with Ariel Donoghue playing the young child version and Ilsa Fogg the teenager. Radha Mitchell (Girl at the Window) is Dora, the mother, back then, and Elizabeth Alexander plays her in the present; Eric Bana (The Forgiven) is Macka, a family friend; Clarence Ryan (We Are Still Here) and Pedrea Jackson are former Abby love interest Briggs, adult and teen. The cast is solid, their performances doing justice to the narrative.
As does the cinematography, by Andrew Commis (High Ground) and Rick Rifici (Facing Monsters), who shot the underwater scenes. Every frame is gorgeously captured, rendering the coastal wonders—above and below the surface—in stunning colors. Unfortunately, the groper, itself, at times looks like a digital artificact, or at least digitally enhanced, but everything else amazes.
The story begins as Abby is in the middle of a coral-reef research project, the results of which are dispiriting, given the destruction of the undersea world. When she gets word of her Nora’s sudden attack, she heads to her side. It’s been a long time, and the homecoming is bittersweet. As she tends to her mother, her mind turns back to her adolescence.
She and Nora lived alone—Abby’s father having died in an ocean accident—freediving and sustainably fishing to make ends meet. A local developer has plans to turn the shoreline into an expensive resort, but the project is sure to destroy this marine paradise. To make matters worse, Abby and Nora have just encountered a blue groper, which is a kind of fish that makes its home in one place and then stays, if all goes well, for many decades. Abby names him Blueback and he becomes the symbol of their resistance to the resort.
Cutting back and forth in time, the film raises the stakes in many ways, including mother-daughter drama over Abby’s ambitions to go to a better school (further away) so she can pursue a more challenging curriculum. Outmatched and outspent by the developer, they look likely to lose the battle. Their community, which includes the jocular Macka and dreamy-eyed Briggs, would also disappear should the resort go up. But most important of all to Abby is that Blueback would surely die.
It’s a powerful narrative with many important themes, though the sentiment sometimes comes across as two forced. Strong women prevail against almost impossible odds and a small pocket of natural grandeur is preserved. As positive as that all may be, it doesn’t take away from the reality that our modern world is evermore threatened by the greed and predations of the human animal. Aimed at children and family audiences, Blueback will hopefully inspire current and future generations to continue the fight. There is sadly more than just one groper, as magnificent as he is, in jeopardy.