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Blueback

“Blueback” is beautiful to look at and touchingly sincere about the urgency of protecting the oceans, but it is also thinly scripted. Even top-level Australian actors cannot provide texture for the human characters, with the exception of Eric Bana in a small role as Macka, a colorful fisherman. The scenes under water are exquisitely beautiful; it's screenplay that feels soggy.

The movie raises but never really explores another vital question: Which is more meaningful, being a small part of a global effort or working for progress closer to home? That is the conflict between Dora, a woman in a small coastal town who is passionately devoted to protecting her cove from developers, and her daughter Abby (Mia Wasikowska), a marine scientist researching the devastating impacts of environmental degradation on coral reefs. She is at home in the ocean, where, we will learn, she was immersed just after she was born and has been swimming in since she was 18 months old. Above the ocean, she is abrupt with the crew member on board the ship, but gentle and affectionate with the creatures in the fish tank. “How’re you doing, little fella? Did you miss me?” she asks, before sadly continuing, “It’s not good news, I’m afraid. Your home is dying and I don’t know how to help.”

Then she gets a phone call. Her mother is in the hospital. She has had a stroke and can no longer speak. Abby leaves immediately to take Dora home. This leads to a braided narrative that goes back and forth between present, and two different times in the past, when Abby was eight (played by Ariel Donoghue) and when she was 15 (played by Ilsa Fogg). In these flashbacks, Dora is played by Radha Mitchell and the older Dora is played by Elizabeth Alexander. The flashbacks add incidents but little depth to the story.

Much of this seems to be pitched to younger viewers along the lines of Brie Larson’s “Hoot” or the fact-based “Dolphin Tale,” both much more involving than “Blueback.” The mother/daughter conflict, as superficial as it is, seems to be directed at an older audience. The uneven tone and cluttered narratives are distracting.

Blueback is the name of a large grouper fish Dora and Abby first encounter on Abby’s eighth birthday when Dora takes her on her first dive. Abby is initially afraid, but once she passes her mother’s test and retrieves a necklace from the water, Dora takes her to a secluded cove and explains that groupers can live 70 years and do not migrate. They make a home and stay there. Abby names him Blueback, and they become “My Octopus Teacher”-style friends. The fish (a realistic-moving puppet) symbolizes Dora’s efforts to preserve the pristine environment and its vegetation and marine creatures. Abby makes careful, striking watercolors illustrating the enthralling sights she has witnessed under the water.

Abby’s father has died, and Dora supports the two of them by collecting and selling abalone. She's meticulous about picking only “one in three” to ensure that “they’ll still be there for your children’s children to fish.” But her primary occupation is being a fearless defender of the ocean. She does not wait for permission to board Macka’s fishing boat to ensure he is not exceeding the sustainability limits “in line with all the relevant health and safety protocols.” When her home is entered by a local developer without her permission it is a different story. He wants to buy the property to build a resort that will destroy much of the ecosystem and wipe out many unique plants and creatures. He has left his proposal on her kitchen table. “No rush, though,” she tells him. “We’re not going anywhere.” He replies, coolly, “Your neighbors all seem interested.”

Dora has no fear of confronting predators, human or otherwise. But she does not know how to present her arguments to the local governing body. So, 15-year-old Abby steps in, explains what is at stake, and shows them her watercolors so they can see a little of the world of the ocean. She decides she has to leave her home to try to save not only Blueback’s cove but the coves of all of the other Bluebacks in the oceans.  

Perhaps the film is trying to evoke the quiet beauty of the underwater environment, but the message it is trying to convey is cloaked in a tonal languor and too-predicable beats to engage the viewer.

Now playing in theaters. 

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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Film Credits

Blueback movie poster

Blueback (2023)

Rated PG for some thematic elements, peril and brief mild language.

102 minutes

Cast

Mia Wasikowska as Abby

Eric Bana as Mad Macka

Ariel Donoghue as Young Abby

Ilsa Fogg as Teen Abby

Radha Mitchell as Dora

Pedrea Jackson as Teen Briggs

Clarence John Ryan as Briggs

Albert Mwangi as Gitundu

Erik Thomson as Costello

Elizabeth Alexander as Older Dora

Director

Writer

Writer (based on the book "Blueback" by)

Cinematographer

Cinematographer (underwater cinematography)

Editor

Composer

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