Dir. J.A. Bayona
(2012, PG-13, 114 minutes)

My primary concern going into The Impossible was that the film, chronicling the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia in 2004, would be a whitewash of events, filtering the disaster, which killed a quarter million people throughout the region, through the eyes of affluent Europeans. That concern is partly founded, as this is indeed a film about affluent white Europeans, whose Thailand resort vacation was interrupted by the worst natural disaster in modern history. That in and of itself is not a fault, but in the back of my mind I couldn’t shake the awareness that it casts Thais as secondary characters in their own tragedy, in the background of the story of a family that gets to fly away at the end.

But that is less a criticism of the film itself than of the generally narrow focus of mainstream filmmaking. Taken on its own, The Impossible is well made. It’s directed by J.A. Bayona, who previously made the eerie, underrated haunted-house thriller The Orphanage. This film is mostly dissimilar, except that it’s also an impressive visual achievement. Very soon after introducing us to the Bennett family, based on the real-life Belon family from Spain, the tsunami hits, and the screen goes black before mother Maria (Naomi Watts) opens her eyes to find herself drifting inland on a massive wave trying to reach her oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland). This bravura sequence is representative of what’s best about the film: the primal urgency of survival, which pushes the mother and son beyond their limits just to stay afloat and stay together. At one point, Lucas must help Maria into a tree, supporting her weight on his young shoulders, and Bayona emphasizes the physicality of the ordeal.

The film loses some of its tension as it becomes a more standard against-the-odds reunion story. I don’t know how accurately the events of the film reflect the true story of the Belon family, but the details dramatized in this screenplay feel designed to pluck our heartstrings, and take away from the immediacy of the scenes of the disaster itself. Consider a late flashback showing Maria immediately after she is carried away by the wave: underwater, in terrifying slow motion, she is tossed mercilessly not only by water but by debris ā€“ glass and metal and sharp wood branches ā€“ which is what does most of the damage. That imagery is what most effectively communicates the toll of the tsunami on an individual level, which can be extrapolated thousands of times over.