Reporting Eric Henderson
When Oscar nominations are announced next week, odds are relatively good that you’ll hear The Impossible‘s Naomi Watts listed among the contenders for best actress. After all, she spends all but the movie’s first 15 minutes at death’s door, having been thrashed, punctured, and half-drowned during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
You don’t show the world what it looks like to vomit massive amounts of ingested seaweed turned black from internal bleeding and not get that sort of attention, right?
Watts plays real-life tsunami survivor Maria Belon, who was vacationing in Thailand with her family when a 9.1-magnitude earthquake triggered the Boxing Day tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands. It was the sixth deadliest disaster in recorded history, which is one of the reasons some critics have taken issue with The Impossible‘s choice of focus.
To some, the movie’s choice to foreground the suffering of a few privileged people who, when the world basically ended, happened to be among a lot of other, far less privileged people is problematic, to say the least. Personally, my sensibilities were far more offended by the fact that the race of the real family the movie depicts was changed from Spanish to … British? Australian? The movie doesn’t give a clear answer there, which inevitably draws even more attention to the inexplicable ethnic swap.
I’d argue the movie doesn’t focus on one family at the expense of the throngs of other victims but more so as a microcosmic device to try and gauge the scope of an unspeakably immense disaster. Director Juan Antonio Bayona’s largely analog depiction of the tsunami is raw and powerful enough even outside of the context of the Belon family’s plight that it transmutes itself upon the other millions of lives either ended or irrevocably affected by a singularly traumatic event.
For a solid chunk of excruciating screen time immediately following the tsunami’s arrival, The Impossible is unflinching. Maria and her oldest son Lucas (played with often surprising clarity by Tom Holland) are swept far away from their vacation resort and end up in a severely taxed hospital, while her husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their two younger sons, who have all miraculously escaped serious injury, set about to find them. Maria’s body showcases the event’s physical toll with her gaping, fleshy wounds and punctured lungs, and Henry breaking down into jagged sobs as he calls family members to tell them he doesn’t know if Maria and Lucas made it speaks to the emotional cost.
Eventually the movie is unable to sustain that precarious balance between unspeakable horror and incongruous hope that marks every sizeable natural catastrophe, and understandably opts to sentimentalize the family’s Impossible reunion. Only when the family’s plane home lifts off from a decimated, wrecked landscape — while Watts cries big, photogenic tears of pride in her oldest son’s heroic efforts — does the movie start to resemble the much uglier statement its harshest critics have described.
During Oscar season, the hyperbole cuts both ways, and that usually ends up leaving films not in the conversation, well, out of the conversation. It would be a shame if that ended up happening to Not Fade Away, a flawed but strong piece of ’60s mythologizing.
The debut film of The Sopranos creator David Chase, Not Fade Away plays in practice like an unofficial sequel to Tom Hanks’ directorial debut That Thing You Do. A group of teenage boys hooked on the new pop tunes that seem, to them, earth-shattering get it in their shaggy heads to start up a band. Their awfully refreshing reason? To get girls.
Chase’s script is at its smartest when he depicts his young protagonists’ attempts to mimic the political fervor of their heroes and never quite actually getting it. Short and stubby Douglas (John Magaro, at certain angles a dead ringer for Blonde On Blonde-era Bob Dylan) disrupts a Christmas dinner with grand gestures against the war in Vietnam, but he and his friends seem awed when one of their classmates comes back home for the holidays boasting about his military experience as a sniper. He sings new-style “Summer of Love” ballads anticipating the advent of feminism, but can’t seem to wrap his head around why his good-looking girlfriend Joy (saucer-eyed Bella Heathcote) would want to study veterinary medicine rather than be a glamorous movie star out in Los Angeles.
Both Chase and his characters are media-obsessed, a fixation that repeatedly manifests itself in cute smash-edits that sting emotional epiphanies, such as when Joy tells Douglas “Time is on your side,” immediately followed by a cut to a Cold War duck-and-cover informational film.
Chase’s storytelling rhythms are punchy like a great TV show, and even if he doesn’t seem quite sure of how to structure a narrative feature film (the movie occasionally feels like a pilot episode), Not Fade Away is smart and consistently refreshing.