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Unlike some films that have become critics’ darlings, The Impossible has no pretensions. It isn’t edgy and I don’t think it has a hidden subtext. It’s just a beautifully told, enormously moving story of a family’s experiences during and after the 2004 tsunami that hit a holiday resort in Thailand. Shorn of the contrivances we associate with Hollywood disaster movies, The Impossible recreates an unthinkable event and its aftermath with breathtaking—and heartbreaking—credibility.

Director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter Sergio Sanchez capture both the big picture and the small moments that transform a catastrophe into a life-changing experience for everyone involved.

Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play the parents of three boys who arrive at the beautiful resort for a Christmas vacation. Their lives are upended on December 26 when the ocean turns into a raging monster. Once the waters recede, Watts and her eldest son (played by the remarkable Tom Holland, making his film debut) reconnect, but have no idea where they are, where to go, or how to find the rest of their family. They may all be dead.

I’m reluctant to reveal much more. The film is based on the experiences of a Spanish family who allowed the filmmakers to tell their story. Bayona and Sanchez doggedly avoid sentimentality, allowing us to bring our own emotional reaction to the events onscreen. The visual effects and production design make every scene seem genuine. Watts, McGregor, and the three boys are all superb.

Anyone who has lived through a real-life disaster, large or small, knows that it brings out the best in humanity. Ordinary people become heroic and brave people become inspiring. The Impossible captures all of that. It’s a tough movie, but also one of the best I’ve seen all year.

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