What It's About: A terrifying recreation of the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004, as seen through one family's harrowing ordeal. The remarkable true story of the Alvarez Belon family has been fictionalized as a British family, but the dramatic impact remains the same.
In the devastating aftermath of the tidal wave, the dad and two young sons (Ewan McGregor, Oaklee Pendergast, Samuel Joslin) are separated from the mom and oldest son (Naomi Watts, Tom Holland). Their search for each other, amid the chaos of catastrophe, runs through a wrenching gamut of emotions -- fear, despair, hope and joy, as expertly conveyed by strong performances.
The human spirit is tested in unimaginable ways, and ultimately triumphs.
Performances: As the severely injured mother Maria, Naomi Watts ("King Kong") has never been better, The role is very demanding, as she endures enormous suffering, both physical and emotional. The character is put through the ringer, and Watts is convincing.
Ewan McGregor ("Beginners"), always interesting on screen, has more of a supporting role, but his part is equally gut-wrenching. His despair, as he searches for his family, is palpable. The lack of communication and transportation, as well as the conditions he confronts, takes a toll on his character, and McGregor conveys the fear and frustration beautifully.
The film's breakthrough performance is Tom Holland as the eldest pre-teen son Lucas. He must grow up fast, and deals with the horror of the situation in heroic ways -- but always believable. It's a natural, accomplished turn, deserving of high praise.
The 8-minute scene that recreates the tsunami is stunning and absolutely frightening. The you-are-there aspect of the film is its strong suit but also makes the film incredibly difficult to watch. The realistic depiction of Maria's injuries and her subsequent health problems at an overwhelmed medical center are tough visuals and drain the audience emotionally.
The family is aided by kind strangers along the way, and those gestures of grace provide plenty of lump-in-the-throat moments.
Thankfully, the director steered away from the cheesy aspect of disaster movies ("The Day After Tomorrow," for example). J.A. Bayona's wheelhouse is horror movies, so this isn't too much of a stretch, actually.
What Doesn't Work
The concentration on the natural disaster and the resulting casualties give it a docu-drama quality, but there had to be melodrama, and that escalates in the film's second half. However, the script could have been finessed more to complement the in-your-face technical brilliance. Because the actors are so good, they fill in the humanity.
I would have liked a coda, to find out what happened to Maria once she received necessary care at home.
The film's brutality can't be overstated. But in the end, what we're left with is an astonishing look at the human condition.
3 1/2 stars out of 4
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Tom Holland
Rated: PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity.