Typically, a mother is an archetype for nurture, comfort and safety. But when it comes to Mother Nature, she can be very hot or cold, and in “The Impossible,” the Belon family is unfortunately subjected to her sporadic behavior.

The Impossible

At Quality 16 and Rave

Based on a true story, “The Impossible” follows Maria (Naomi Watts, “J. Edgar”) and Henry (Ewan McGregor, “Haywire”) as they travel with their three young boys to Thailand for a Christmas vacation. But the relaxing retreat quickly turns into a desperate struggle for survival after a tsunami strikes the coast on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004. The family is torn apart, and not only is reconciliation unlikely as thousands simultaneously search for missing kin among the resulting melee and chaos, but Maria’s life hangs in the balance as she suffers critical injuries. Given the hopelessness of the situation, a happy ending seems downright “impossible” to predict.

The hours and hours of news coverage that followed this historic and harrowing natural catastrophe could never have aptly detailed or uncovered the amount of emotional damage and ruin sustained by its victims, but that level of personal destruction rings clear in this fictional recount. Buildings can always be repaired, but people who perish can never be replaced. After Maria is taken to a local hospital — every room and hall crowded with people who are dying or already dead — the extent of human suffering on an individual level is starkly illuminated.

While the dialogue (Sergio G. Sanchez, “The End”) isn’t very impressive, the production relies heavily on a team effort of aesthetic contributions to drive the story. Director Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”) takes the helm and crafts actions to speak far louder than words as the members of the Belon family — and countless others who cross their paths — strive to reunite with their lost loved ones.

The beautiful culmination of a talented crew continues with the artful and creative cinematography of Oscar Faura (“Julia’s Eyes”), who shocks and awes through underwater shots (just after the initial wave hits) of Maria and her son, Lucas who, at the mercy of the relentless current, dodges debris as he is swept away by the ravaging receding tide. The score, by Fernando Velazquez (“Sons of the Clouds”), heightens the heartbreak during scenes of loss through tender violins, and the bounding boom of music during perilous situations elicits a sympathetic spirit.

Watts is the on-screen standout. She’s electrifying as a physically wounded and emotionally broken mother who experiences a role reversal (again, the maternal archetype is challenged here, but in another fashion). Maria must rely on Lucas to play caretaker as both her mind and body fall apart. In a delicate portrayal, Watts embodies the agony of total powerlessness during horrific circumstances, but though all signs point to defeat, she is still determined to fight for her life.

It’s no surprise that Watts’s authentic performance has earned her both Golden Globe and Oscar nods, two more fights of which the winner is yet to be determined. But, win or lose, there’s no life-or-death situation there.

“The Impossible” puts things into perspective. It’s a staggering look at the bigger picture, which is certainly not shiny, gold statues — it’s a healthy, loving family. Lose that and there’s no, “you’ll get ’em next year.”

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