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story.lead_photo.caption Lucas (Tom Holland) clings to his mom Maria (Naomi Watts), in Spanish director J.A. Bayona’s true-life disaster film The Impossible.

— There is a moral question that, fairly or not, dogs Spanish director J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible: Is it all right to make an ultimately uplifting story against the backdrop of unspeakable horror?

If you think it isn’t, then you needn’t bother with The Impossible, which is about how one family’s Christmas vacation was nearly ruined by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which killed nearly 250,000 people. If you are the sort of person who goes on about “First World problems” on your Twitter feed, then you probably won’t care much for this movie.

And I admit I had reservations - it’s always dangerous to place a feel-good story in the context of mass destruction. Never mind that Bayona’s film does have some political cover afforded by the fact that its based - pretty accurately as far as I can tell - on the true story of the Alarez Belon family from Spain. But then I tend to want to allow artists to address anything they dare to - and assess the work as it comes. You can make a great film about the Holocaust, it’s just terribly difficult.

And what Bayona has made is a terrific horror movie, one that genuinely grips and shocks its audience and forces empathy with the would-be victims. Here the family is English, not Spanish, and based in Japan, and their surname is Bennett, not Belon. Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) are a handsome and prosperous couple (the sort Melissa McCarthy’s character in This Is 40 might describe as refugees from “a bank commercial”) and they have three young boys, the oldest of whom, Lucas (an amazing Tom Holland), is nearing adolescence.

We meet them first on an ominously foreboding flight to Khao Lak, Thailand, where they will spend Christmas at a beach resort. All goes well until Boxing Day, when the family head for the pool. Then a moment of thickening silence and calm. And then, the deluge.

In an astounding set piece accomplished through the masterful use of miniature models, computer animation and some remarkable stunt performers, Bayona convincingly re-creates the roiling power of the tsunami. We see vehicles tossed aside, trees pulled under, the resort overwhelmed by surging water.

Maria is swept through a glass wall; Lucas hurtles in the current. They manage to stay in touch and eventually find each other on the other side of an obliterated world. Lucas assumes his brothers are dead, and he takes charge of his wounded mother (who happens to be a physician, although she has taken a few years off to rear her sons).

Meanwhile, Henry and the other boys (Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast) have remarkably survived and are together. Still, their ordeal is far from over.

Bayona and his cast do subtle work with a script that might seem a little flat on the page (the dialogue isn’t strong; we get more of a sense of who these characters are by the way they regard each other than by the words they say). Watts is particularly strong as she plays a woman in shock who refuses to succumb to grief; McGregor is heartbreaking as a man who believes he has lost half his family.

But Holland is the undisputed star here, as a little boy forced to grow up in a moment. He maintains a brave face while at the same time allowing doubt and even hopelessness to play briefly across his face.

There are lots of little grace notes in the film that contrast the possibilities for human tenderness with the random anger of heartless gods. And yes, there are bodies, brown and yellow mostly, and death and fever.

Having heard and read about The Impossible, you might not be inclined to see it. Skipping it will do you no harm. But it’s not an insensitive film; its a deeply humane one.

And you can Tweet that.

The Impossible 86 Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Geraldine Chaplin Director: J.A. Bayona Rating: PG-13, for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity Running time: 114 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 29 on 01/04/2013

Print Headline: The Impossible

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