Mia Wasikowska stars in this drama about protecting the planet from land developers. Courtesy Arenamedia

Dive into the depths of this cinematic ode to ocean conservation and family bonds.

Robert Connolly’s “Blueback” was one of my favorite selections at this year’s Maui Film Festival. Both an entertaining coming-of-age story and a plea for empathy towards marine life, Connolly’s work fits the bill for an MFF entry as a feel-good movie with a pro-environment message. 

This Australian family drama depicts a young girl named Abby (played by Ariel Donoghue), who has a life-changing encounter with a wild blue groper while diving, which inspires her to protect the fish and its environment. 

Abby’s mother, Dora (played by Radha Mitchell), is an activist and proper role model for Abby, as she encourages her to follow her passions and pursue worthwhile causes. Mia Wasikowska portrays Abby as an adult, which forms a framing device that connects the discoveries of Abby’s youth with her later journey serving as a caretaker for her mother.

While my generation gravitated toward “Free Willy” (1993), and the one before me savored “Born Free” (1970), this film also succeeds in telling a captivating human story intertwined with the majesty of wildlife.

If the film inspires audiences to pursue marine biology or to engage in ocean conservation, then the filmmakers have accomplished their first goal. The second was to create an engaging piece of cinema that reflects Australian societal values and showcases talent both in front of and behind the camera. 

The underwater scenes make for the film’s best moments, filled with ravishing, jaw-dropping beauty. Surpassing being merely pretty, the imagery emerges as painterly in its radiance. To put it mildly, “Blueback” is a pleasure to watch.

In addition to the exquisite work by cinematographers Andrew Commis and Rick Rifici, composer Niguel Westlake’s stirring score deserves special mention.

Another aspect that sets “Blueback” apart is its central relationship — and I don’t mean the bond between the little girl and her giant fish. Instead, the film focuses on how a young girl is inspired by her mother’s efforts as an oceanic conservationist. Although I like movies about a child who befriends a cute animal in need of rescue, this narrative dives into more serious themes.

Wasikowska has limited screen time and, while Eric Bana’s extended cameo is enjoyable, the movie could have used a lot more of him. The film truly belongs to Mitchell, whose soulful performance is her best work in some time. Mitchell, known for her roles in “Pitch Black” (2000) and “Melinda and Melinda” (2005), delivers another powerful and passionate turn that gives the film its dramatic center. 

“Blueback” does have some problems as a family film — it’s a bit slow and there’s a lot of dialogue. Ideally suited for pre-teens, it may be too serious for younger kids and a hair overlong for adults. While it avoids being preachy in its environmental agenda, the sequences set on land simply can’t compete with those taking place beneath the water. 

Yet, here’s one of the few recent films to depict a positive mother-daughter relationship and explore the growth of a young woman as an environmentally conscious activist. If “Blueback” is a little tougher and more mature than some might expect, it’s still a valuable find and a treat for middle schoolers as well as their parents. 

There is true beauty in “Blueback,” and its final scene leaves room for multiple interpretations. The film could have easily emerged with a heavy-handed message, but avoids that by exploring the weight of taking action against environmental abuse and sharing a passion passed down by a parent. When my daughter is a little older, I’m sharing this one with her. (On Kanopy)

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