THE IMPOSSIBLE: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (114 min.)
The tsunami that hit the coast of Thailand and managed to make its way all the way to Coastal Africa is one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit in the middle of the Indian Ocean, sending a devastating tidal wave to Southeast Asia, killing over 280,000 unsuspecting civilians, locals and tourists alike. The Impossible tells the story of one family amid the chaotic events of late December 2004, when all seemed lost. Had I waited a week longer to make my top ten list for 2012 I would have definitely recognized The Impossible as one of the ten best of the year. It is a savage and unflinching film about tragedy, but a beautiful examination of human kindness with heart-wrenching performances not only from Oscar nominee Naomi Watts, but from everyone involved.
The events surrounding the family in the film are entirely true, and almost unbelievable. Almost. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry, and as we open they are traveling from Japan (where Henry works) to Thailand, vacationing with their three young boys off the coast for Christmas. Their family is not unfamiliar, with a pre-teen son, two much younger sons, and a general comfort with their life and work. Things seem fine for a few days as they celebrate Christmas in their resort and spend their days in the lush pools Oceanside. But the day after Christmas their lives, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, would forever be changed.
The tsunami comes without much warning, save for a few fleeing birds and a rumble of the oncoming wave. It is fierce and violent and the ferocity of the waves can be felt through the screen as people are thrown to the ground and washed away and buildings and trees are destroyed in a roar of the angry ocean. The tsunami effects are startlingly realistic here, and the result is breathtaking. Maria watches as Henry and the two youngest boys are taken under by the wave before she is pummeled and fights to come up for air. She finds herself being swept along in a river of debris and broken trees that all feel and seem as dangerous as they must have been. Maria spots her oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland) clinging for life and the two eventually find each other in the chaos.
The rest of the film deals with issues upon issues amid a myriad of confusion and disaster. Maria and Lucas sludge through the aftermath, struggling to find higher ground. But Maria is badly wounded and needs help. Meanwhile we discover Henry searching for them back at the resort, which now in shambles. The desperation of the situation resonates in the performances, and the impact of the tsunami goes beyond just this family and it takes a broader look at the carnage.
Maria and Lucas find help and are carted away to the hospital where Maria coaxes her son into trying to help people. Afraid to leave is mother, Lucas nevertheless obliges and finds great joy working to connect loved ones with one another. Naomi Watts is a force on the screen, her toughness shining through every scene as she struggles to stay alive and keep her son safe. But we cannot overlook the performance of young Tom Holland here, playing the older son Lucas. Holland is for all intents and purposes the lead in The Impossible, and the transformation he goes through from self-centered pre-teen to a young boy with a new view on humanity and life is a revelation.
Some have discredited The Impossible for focusing on a white family in a disaster which took many more lives of Thai locals. But this is one story in the orbit of a tragedy, and the local citizens are never minimized or ignored. This is a film about human will, about kindness, and about the small things we do in a moment of crisis which unites us as a race. It is easily one of the ten best films of the year.