In 2013, Samantha Bloom was vacationing with her husband and their three young sons in Thailand when she suffered a devastating accident. While on an observation deck at their hotel, Bloom leaned against a faulty balcony railing and fell through it, landing 20 feet below on the concrete ground. She fractured her skull, ruptured her lungs and shattered her spine.
This horrific real-life event plays out in Glendyn Ivin’s new film, Penguin Bloom, which releases on Netflix on Jan. 27. The film follows Bloom and her family in the months after the accident as they struggle to adjust to their new normal. Sam (Naomi Watts), who is paralyzed from the chest down and now uses a wheelchair, longs to be the active and independent mother she once was. Now, she’s forced to rely on others for everything. She’s depressed and isolating herself from her loved ones, but things start to change for the better once an injured baby magpie named Penguin is fatefully brought into her life.
Penguin Bloom, which also stars Andrew Lincoln and Jacki Weaver, closely follows the events that the Bloom family faced in the aftermath of the tragedy. Their real life story was first captured on Instagram, where Bloom’s husband, Cameron, a professional photographer, documented Penguin’s presence in their lives. This caught the attention of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which shared a piece on the family, eventually leading Cameron Bloom to publish a book in 2016, Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird Who Saved a Family. The film charts the powerful bond between Sam Bloom and the bird, as well as how the family coped with her trauma and unique journey to recovery. Here, TIME takes a closer look at the true story behind the movie, along with what happened in the years after Bloom sustained her life-altering injuries.
Struggling to adjust
After the accident, Bloom endured seven months of rehabilitation and then returned to her house in Australia. In a 2017 piece for TIME, Bloom described the harrowing experience of being in such a familiar place that suddenly felt wrenchingly unfamiliar. “When viewed from a wheelchair, the once-familiar sanctuary of love and comfort became an alien landscape strewn with obstacles,” Bloom wrote. “Nothing felt right; I didn’t feel like I belonged anymore.”
It was during this time that Bloom became depressed. In a recent interview with People, Bloom spoke about her home’s proximity to the beach, and how it was a painful reminder of her life before traveling to Thailand. “The beach was everything to me. I was surfing and swimming all the time. I could no longer run down there like before the accident,” she said. “At that point, I didn’t want to live.”
The book, written by Australian author Bradley Trevor Greive with photographs by Cameron Bloom, reflects on this emotionally troubling time for the family. Though he and their three sons attempted to help Bloom, they were aware that she was slipping away. “I don’t pretend that we are the most religious family, but in addition to seeking the best medical advice we could, we prayed to anyone who would hear us, begging for help,” he wrote in a photo essay published in The Guardian in 2016. “And then our prayers were answered in the most unexpected way when a tiny, scruffy, injured magpie chick entered our lives.”
Healing with a feathery friend
Three months after Bloom returned home her 11-year-old son, Noah, found the injured baby magpie, which the family named Penguin. The tiny bird had fallen out of its nest and dropped over 60 feet onto an asphalt parking lot, where she would have died had the Bloom family not taken her home. Sam Bloom wrote that caring for Penguin was an undertaking—the bird had an intense feeding schedule (every two hours) and always needed to be kept warm. They spent all their time together. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but, in a way, we were keeping each other alive,” she wrote. Through committing herself to the frail bird’s recovery, Bloom realized she was feeling better, and watching Penguin become more independent made her want that for herself, too.
“When Penguin was weak and sickly, Sam would lovingly nurse her back to health,” Cameron Bloom wrote in his book. “When Sam found it hard to get moving, Penguin would sing her energy levels up.” The family grew deeply attached to the bird, and images shot by Cameron Bloom featured the bird all over their home, including perched on family members’ shoulders as well as burrowed between them in bed. After regaining her strength, Penguin eventually upgraded from a nest made out of a laundry basket and cotton fabric to a spot outside, in the frangipani tree in the family’s backyard.
As depicted in Penguin Bloom, Sam Bloom returned to the water as Penguin began to get better, and started kayaking. This was a challenge for someone with a spinal cord injury because Bloom was not able to rely on her torso for strength, instead powering the kayak with her upper body and arms. But she worked diligently at the sport, and became close with her kayaking coach Gaye Hatfield (who is played by Rachel House in the movie). Bloom’s renewed interest in water sports landed her a spot on the Australian ParaCanoe team in 2015. She went on to compete for the team in the world championships that year in Milan. The day Bloom left for the competition, Penguin flew away for a final time. As Cameron Bloom wrote, the family would miss the bird, but “the endless blue sky was not ours to give, it was always hers by right.”
Along with kayaking and canoeing, Sam Bloom began surfing again, which was one of her favorite activities before the accident. In 2018, Bloom became a member of the Australian Adaptive Surf Team, where she competes in the “prone-assist” category. Since reacquainting herself with the sport, Bloom has won two World Para Surfing Championships.
Making the movie
When Naomi Watts read Penguin Bloom, she was so moved by the family’s story that she wanted to adapt it for the screen. She told People: “The images were so compelling, and the story was filled with courage and hope.” The Bloom family was intimately involved in the adaptation—Sam Bloom allowed Watts to read her journals, and the movie was shot in their actual family home in Australia. The accurate representation of Bloom’s disability was important to the filmmakers, and director Glendyn Ivin cites those journals as aiding in that mission. “In some ways, that was the real key to knowing what it was like to be in that situation, to be in a depression and have a physical disability that she had found herself with,” Ivin told SBS News in Australia.
The production also included eight magpies who starred as Penguin. Watts spoke to NPR about working with the birds, sharing that she initially questioned how she would be able to portray Bloom and Penguin’s relationship on-screen. But she ultimately found the magpies to be both trainable and smart, explaining that shooting with them would occasionally be something of a waiting game: “You might not get what was required, but you might get something just as brilliant.”
Correction, Jan. 28
The original version of this story misstated Cameron Bloom’s role in the book Penguin Bloom. He provided the photography, while Bradley Trevor Greive wrote the book.