by Rachel Willis
An encounter with a wild blue grouper sends 8-year-old Abby on a lifelong mission to understand, and save, the ocean ecosystem in writer/director Robert Connolly’s feature, Blueback.
We follow Abby through three stages of her life. The first – and shortest – at age 8 is precociously played by Ariel Donoghue. Teenage Abby, played by Isla Fogg, is who we spend the most time with as she reconciles her love of the ocean with her mom, Dora’s (Radha Mitchell), overt activism. A contemporary framing story follows the adult Abby (Mia Wasikowska) as a marine biologist who returns home after Dora (the older version portrayed by Elizabeth Alexander) suffers a stroke.
On paper, this seems like a lot to contend with, but Connolly handles each stage well, ping-ponging primarily from adult Abby and teenage Abby with a skillful touch. There’s never any confusion as to where we are in time, as both Fogg and Wasikowska cement us with the character (as do Mitchell and Alexander with Dora). Both depictions are so strong as to convince us that we’re watching the same woman across time.
The movie’s biggest problem is overstuffing the scenes of teenage Abby’s life, leaving too little time for both the framing story, and the fish that gives the film its name. Though Eric Bana is a fine actor, his character Macka feels extraneous. There are other characters with whom our time is better spent.
Because we spend so little time with the grouper, there’s never the sense that we’re connecting with an animal in the way other films showcase the human-animal bond. It’s possible it’s simply hard to make a girl and her fish land the same way as a boy and his dog, though I imagine those who saw My Octopus Teacher might beg to differ.
Despite the film’s tendency to take on a little too much regarding its worldbuilding, it’s still an effective exploration of family and community, and how we relate to the natural world. There are those who seek to exploit it for everything it’s worth, while others wish to preserve it for future generations.
There’s a sense that for each piece of the world we lose, more than we can ever imagine is lost along with it. Abby and Dora hope to preserve that which connects us to something bigger than ourselves. The theme is always one worth repeating, and Blueback adds a unique perspective to the mix.