‘Impossible’ is hard to watch, but moving

Naomi Watts in "The Impossible."

“The Impossible,” a movie about a family swept apart by a tsunami, was one of the year’s hardest for me personally to watch — especially in the early going.

But that’s actually a backhanded compliment.

Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”) does such a great job of combining live action with digital effects that you are utterly convinced what you are seeing is real — horrifyingly real human suffering.

Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) are a British couple who have taken their three young boys, ages 5 to 12, to a coastal resort in Thailand for Christmas vacation. He’s a businessman stationed in Japan, she’s a stay-at-home mom who happens to be a physician.

The opening scenes set up the family dynamic and the idyllic setting, along with a vague sense of foreboding, before a wave more than 100 feet high suddenly crashes down as the family frolics around a swimming pool.

Rather than cut to the aftermath, Bayona follows Maria and her eldest, Lucas (Tom Holland), second to second. They catch sight of each other as they are caught up in a raging tide. Debris and stationary objects batter and tear at them as they strain to stay together, keep heads above water and find a safe spot to cling to.

But there is no safe place. And there isn’t just one wave to survive.

When they do survive, they have to contend with shock, fear, serious injuries, wandering through devastation to find help — and stumbling on gruesome, awful tragedy along the way.

They also have to face what’s likely happened to the rest of their family.

Most of the movie takes place at a hospital also overcome by a huge wave — a wave of victims desperate for help.

Amid all this, Lucas must rise above terror and anger, quickly grow up and convert trauma into courage. While Watts has gotten the lion’s share of award-season attention — and she deserves it — hers is not the only bravura performance in “The Impossible.”

If you don’t want to know the fate of the other family members before seeing the movie, skip the next three paragraphs.

Holland gives a stellar performance in a major role as young Lucas, and the two kids playing his younger brothers (Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast) are also amazing in difficult, demanding scenes.

Likewise, McGregor is deeply affecting as the dad, though absent from the screen for nearly half the movie and with less to play than Watts.

One problem with “The Impossible” is that we are plugged in emotionally to the fate of one family trying to find each other. But more than 300,000 people died in this tsunami. As the movie wears on, we can’t help wondering about all those others — especially the natives of Thailand. The story is based on real events in 2004, though the family it’s based on was Spanish.

Another problem is that you may feel emotionally manipulated toward the end by coincidences and near-happenings.

Bayona’s talent for sustaining suspense and the cast’s raw performances more than compensate for the movie’s drawbacks or the difficulty of watching such suffering.

Some might argue that “The Impossible” makes us care too much for the wrong people. But the fact that we care is testament to skillful moviemaking and storytelling.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1269, bob.fischbach@owh.com

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