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Blueback Is a Gentle Mother-Daughter Story Set Against a Shimmery Underwater World

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We live in such rushed and anxious times that most of us probably spend more energy worrying about the imperiled environment than we do savoring its beauty. This is where the transportive power of movies can help: Blueback, adapted by writer-director Robert Connolly from a novella by Tim Winton, is a gentle, gorgeously filmed story about a fraught relationship between a mother and daughter and the cause that unites them, set in one corner of a world worth saving, the West Australian coast. The picture manages to be pensive and breezy at once, a reflection on the way those who raise us sometimes impart their most noble values to us even as they’re driving us crazy—and their little ways of annoying us are often the things we miss most when they’re gone.

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Abby (Mia Wasikowska) is a marine biologist who’s called home when her mother, Dora (Liz Alexander), suffers a serious stroke. The story of how Abby found her life’s calling unfolds in flashback, focusing largely on her teenage years (where she’s played by newcomer Ilsa Fogg), during which Dora (played in these scenes by a feisty Radha Mitchell) is focused dually on preserving endangered coastal waters and instilling in her daughter a love of the natural world. Dora and Abby are on their own—Abby’s father died when she was young, having drowned in the very ocean he loved—and Dora takes a businesslike approach to schooling her young offspring in the wonders of the coastline. The two often clash: Abby is embarrassed by her mother’s brash activism, and Dora feels affronted when Abby chooses a secondary school that’s far away, preferring her to stay closer to home.

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Yet these two have more in common than they’d readily admit, and it’s Dora who introduces Abby to the finned friend who will lead her to her vocation. Together, on Abby’s first diving expedition at the tender age of 8, they meet a wild blue groper, a mighty, long-lived fish with oversized cartoon lips and a plaintive expression. Abby christens him Blueback, and her connection with him through the years anchors a story that’s as gently compelling as the allure of sun-warmed water—but also as urgent as a ticking clock. The underwater sequences in Blueback, revealing kingdoms of stripy, shimmery fish and regal, precious coral beds, aren’t just beautiful to look at; they remind us of our interdependence with the underwater world. This is a movie about close family bonds and a more universal web that connects us, infinitely precious and worth preserving at all costs.

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