Title: The Impossible
Directed By: Jaun Antonio Bayona
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast
“The Impossible” begins with a full sentence of text explaining that the film is based on a true story. That sentence then does a slow fade to black, but leaves the words “true story” behind. After scoffing at the overly dramatic opening, I was sure “The Impossible” would be melodrama to the max, manipulating emotions rather than earning them. To my surprise, delight and horror, the film brings on the waterworks and goes on to earn each and every drop.
Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as Maria and Henry, two loving parents traveling with their young sons, Lucas, Thomas and Simon (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast), to Thailand for a vacation. The trip is packed with wonderful meals, family bonding and Christmas presents up until the morning of December 26, 2004. While enjoying a day at the pool, the family, other hotel guests and just about every person in the coastal zone is swept away by a devastating tsunami.
When the wave subsides, Maria resurfaces and is only able to track down her eldest son, Lucas. While the two desperately try to make it to drier land, Henry and the other two boys are holed up at the hotel. An opportunity to be taken to safer ground arises, but Henry can’t leave without finding his wife and son first.
The fact that “The Impossible” is based on the true story of a real family does make the material more profound, but it most certainly does not lean on its factual roots as a crutch. “The Impossible” stands on its own just as any feature should, but there’s also no denying that whether you’re swept away by the opening text or it hits you as an afterthought, knowing that a real family actually struggled through this very experience puts “The Impossible” on another level.
Director Jaun Antonio Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sánchez go a little too far selling the big happy family shtick in the first scene, offering up a mundane conversation about forgetting to set the house alarm, but soon enough, we’re consumed by booming and beautifully eerie sound design, giving way to a chilling balance between happier times and the horrors that are to come. Again, even if you aren’t aware of the impending wave, the threat is still present through on-point music cues and a thoughtful use of background sound effects.
While the opening does have a profoundly foreboding feel to it, nothing can prepare you for what’s to come. Bayona gives you just enough time to get comfortable at the pool right alongside the family so, even though you know it’s coming, when that wave hits it’s not just about the incredible action of the moment; you can truly feel the family being ripped apart from one another, and it hurts.
When Maria resurfaces “The Impossible” starts to tread into less familiar territory. The tsunami wasn’t just one and done. The area was completely flooded and lesser but powerful waves followed, so while there is some relief to see that Maria is alive and is within arm’s reach of Lucas, anxiety is still sky high, and so is the case with the rest of the film.
Every time the family members overcome one obstacle, they encounter another, and every single member of the cast handles them beautifully. Both Watts and McGregor deliver impressive and immensely successful performances, but there’s just no way either could steal the spotlight from Holland. The young star absolutely nails every bit of the character, selling Lucas’ dedication to his family and also to doing the right thing, a pivotal achievement as that’s what makes Lucas such a special character. For him, this isn’t just a fight for survival or for his family; it’s a significant transformation for him as a person. Joslin also enjoys a noteworthy arc as Thomas, the middle son, going from a little boy who needs his mother to a young man you can trust.
Who am I to say that “The Impossible” well-represents the effect of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but from an outsider’s perspective, the filmmakers do treat the material with a great deal of passion and grace. Bayona does everything in his power to put you in those waters right alongside his stars, at times even compelling you to gasp for air, and then the cast members take it from there, delivering some of the most riveting performances of the year, ripping your heart apart and then piecing it back together. “The Impossible” is a suspenseful, moving and disturbing watch for all the right reasons.