PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 21: Writer-director Robert Connolly attends the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Blueback” premiere at the Library Center Theatre on January 21, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Landon Hale)
By Lucy Spicer
It’s easy to get lost while you’re watching Blueback, which premiered January 21 at the Library Center Theatre. And that’s not a comment on the acting or narrative. Rather, the abundance of underwater scenes are so mesmerizing, you may forget you’re not watching a nature program.
When marine biologist Abby (Mia Wasikowska) gets the news that her mother, Dora, has suffered a stroke, she returns to her childhood home on the southern Australia coast to aid in her recovery. In an effort to encourage the return of Dora’s speech, Abby unearths memories from around the house, recounting stories from her youth.
The majority of these memories are from Abby’s teenage years. As young Abby becomes her own person, Dora (Radha Mitchell) fears she’s pulling away. Dora’s stalwart dedication to her oceanside community means she’ll never leave, lest the unscrupulous fishermen and land developers strip the bay of its natural beauty. Though tensions between mother and daughter linger, they can always count on having one big thing in common: a deep love for the ocean and all its creatures — especially a large, friendly blue groper that Abby names Blueback (played by an impressive animatronic puppet).
The film is based on a novella of the same name by celebrated Australian author Tim Winton, but writer-director Robert Connolly made a few tweaks. The novella is about a boy and his mother, but when Connolly’s daughters heard he was adapting the story, they had some thoughts about it. “One of them in particular said, ‘Great, Dad. You’ve got two daughters, and the heroes of all your films are men,’” recalls Connolly to a chuckling audience at the film’s post-premiere Q&A. “So I changed the gender, and Tim Winton was very happy with that, to have a story about a young girl.”
Connolly’s affection for the ocean comes through clearly. A memorable, whimsical score accompanies the many underwater scenes, which were filmed with the utmost authenticity. That means no stunt performers for the diving scenes, even in one of Abby’s early memories when her 8-year-old self retrieves a ring from the ocean floor.
“The scene where the little 8-year-old swims down to get the ring — one of the scariest days of my directing career. We had a drone circling, looking for sharks, and the guy doing the drone said, ‘Yep, no sharks!’ And so, OK, action! And this little girl had to swim down,” recounts Connolly. “But there’s magic in that, in asking these actors to fall in love with the ocean.”
A film made with such obvious care for the coral reef and all of its underwater inhabitants ensures that the audience will fall in love with the ocean, too.