Title: The Impossible
Cast: Naomi Watts (Maria), Ewan McGregor (Henry), Tom Holland (Lucas), Samuel Joslin (Thomas), Oaklee Pendergast (Simon)
Director: Juan Antonia Bayona
The Basics: The Impossible offers a harrowing “based on a true story” account of one family’s struggle to survive and reunite in the wake of the 2004 tsunami that caused unfathomable amounts of death and destruction in southeast Asia. Separated from his father and two younger brothers, Lucas is forced to grow up far beyond his years as he journeys with his mother through the wreckage to an overcrowded hospital in order to get her the help she desperately needs to treat her life-threatening injuries. Although its subject matter renders it almost impossible to watch at times, The Impossible is ultimately a beautiful film about the strength of family and love in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. Much of the film’s beauty and poignancy comes from its core cast, especially its incredible group of child actors.
M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): I know that Naomi Watts is the one getting so much of the credit and recognition for her work in the film, and there’s no denying that her performance is one of the best I’ve seen by an actress this year. However, this film belonged to young Tom Holland.
Just 16 years old, Holland acted with a maturity and depth far beyond his age. This role required him to do so much without words—to show fear and the struggle to compartmentalize that fear with just the slightest change in his expression or the way he carried himself. The naked vulnerability he showed is such a rarity for an actor that young. His panic felt real; his grief felt real. And ultimately his relief felt beautifully real as well. Holland had incredible chemistry with the younger boys playing his brothers as well as with Watts and Ewan McGregor. In many ways, his performance was the glue that holds the film together; his were the eyes we saw the story unfold through. I walked out of the theater genuinely upset that Holland didn’t get any award-season recognition for his revelatory work in this film, and days later I still stand by that assessment. His was one of the most incredible performances I saw all year, not just from a young actor but from any actor.
Scene Stealer: Once again, Ewan McGregor gave a performance that left me sobbing into my hands in a movie theater. And once again, he’s getting criminally little recognition for it. Henry’s journey to reunite his family is the most inspiring part of the film. His inability to give up on his wife and son gave the film a layer of love that’s palpable and heartbreakingly genuine. That steadfast faith could have led to a one-note performance, but McGregor wasn’t afraid to show the emotional turmoil behind Henry’s resolve to find his family. There’s a scene in the film where he’s given the chance to make a call back home, and the way the scene evolves into a gut-wrenching breakdown made it one of the most devastating in a film loaded with devastating moments. It was hard to watch Henry’s façade shatter in such an unflinchingly painful way, but it was right. No one can be strong forever in the face of so much tragedy. Every emotion McGregor showed the audience was so visceral it was as if you could reach out and feel it—his desperation, his guilt, his anxiety, and his incredible love for his family that gave much-needed warmth to such a heavy film.
Bring the Tissues? If the sobbing I heard (and participated in myself) throughout much of the movie is any indication, then yes. You’ll cry with sadness, and you’ll cry with relief. The moments that will make you cry might be up for debate, but one thing that’s not up for debate is this: You will cry, and you will cry hard.
Most Memorable Scene: The Impossible is a film that could have almost been unbearably sad—if not for one scene filled with such pure joy, love, and relief that it made all of the tension and heartbreak of earlier scenes worth the tears. Watching Lucas reunite with his little brothers filled me with such a sense of hope. Once again, Holland stole the show in terms of his reaction. The way he kissed and held the little boys felt so beautifully real, so earned in terms of the emotion of the moment. And the catharsis only intensified watching Henry gather his lost son into his arms. In that moment, I forgot I was watching a movie and truly got lost in this father’s love for his oldest little boy. As the scene continued and Henry was reunited with Maria, I held my breath the entire time. When he took off the oxygen mask to kiss her, it felt more romantic than any fairytale kiss I’d ever seen. It was the very picture of the idea that love is meant to last in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. As Henry held Maria, whispering that he was sorry if he let her down, I cried so hard I lost every bit of eye makeup I had on. And it was worth it.
Strengths: The Impossible was anchored by brilliant, honest performances from every member of its cast. Even the youngest child actors were compelling. It reminded me of the best foreign films I’ve seen in that it mined truly great and surprisingly deep performances from very young, unknown actors. By focusing on such a tight, small cast, the film was able to bring you in to the story in a very personal way. The use of close-ups in important moments (especially on Holland’s face) never distracted from the film. Instead, the technique added to the sense of internal struggle, panic, and resolute strength that each performance was imbued with.
The pacing of the film was another strong point. The beginning of the film was a masterful exercise in creating suspense by simply allowing the events to play out as they did in reality. And from the moment the tsunami hit, I’m not sure I breathed properly until the end. Bayona’s direction created such realistic tension that I was holding onto the armrests of my theater seat with white knuckles. I’ve never felt that anxious in a movie theater, but that’s exactly the way I was supposed to feel. Even knowing the ending, I was so caught up in the struggles of this family that I found myself desperately awaiting their reunion and actually sobbing with relief when it finally came. That’s cinematic catharsis at its best.
Weaknesses: In the moments where CGI was necessary, I found myself surprisingly unimpressed. I thought the tsunami itself looked less real than it could have as it rolled over the land. However, this isn’t a movie about special effects, so that gripe is ultimately a minor one.
I thought this film was incredible, but I’m not sure it’s one I’ll ever be able to watch again. It was tough to take at times, but I understand that it needed to be that way. There were certain moments I had to watch through my fingers as I covered my eyes (because vomiting, even on screen, is something I just can’t watch). Like I said, I know this film’s intensity isn’t even close to what the actual event was like, but for a naturally anxious person like myself, the intensity was almost too relentless for my taste. Let’s just say I had a lot of trouble sleeping the night after I saw it.
Final Verdict: Though its relentless assault on my emotions left me exhausted, I think this film did what it was supposed to do: It took me on an emotional rollercoaster of the highest degree, leaving me able to relax only after the credits began to roll. Between its excellent direction and trio of astounding lead performances, I’m honestly shocked that this film isn’t up for more Oscars. It was more emotionally compelling and cinematically stunning than many of the movies I’ve seen recently, including some Oscar contenders.
Final Grade: A-