There are some fair reasons to be frustrated with The Impossible, director Juan Antonio Bayona's fact-based account of a European family trying to survive the devastating tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in December 2004. But I'm not going to pretend I was thinking about these reasons during most of the film's first hour, which turned me into a gnarl of tension.
There's only a token attempt at setting up the characters of Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three sons as they take a Christmas vacation in Thailand. But soon they're hanging on for dear life, separated by an unimaginable wall of water. Maria manages to find the oldest boy, Lucas (Tom Holland), while Henry and the two younger boys are nowhere to be seen.
The portion of the story focusing on Maria's attempts to survive with Lucas is remarkably harrowing. The trials of these two characters are at times painfully graphic - PG-13 feels like a woefully inadequate rating here - and Holland is terrific as a youngster forced to grow up quickly and consider the risks and rewards of helping someone else when his own survival is still in question. Bayona employs both roaring sound and sudden silence to keep viewers unsettled and disoriented.
The Impossible isn't nearly as powerful when the story explores Henry's fate and the family's thwarted attempts at reuniting, which begin to feel unnecessarily manipulative. At this point, you get a moment to breathe and consider the uncomfortable fact that the film's focus on this particular white family relegates to the background the millions of native people whose lives were destroyed.
But The Impossible is too viscerally enthralling during its first hour for this concern to come to the fore. When cinema can fully immerse you in such an epic tragedy, it's doing something right.