ON DECEMBER 26, 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a tidal wave that battered the Southern Asian coastline, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead and displacing countless more. There are many harrowing and inspiring stories of how people survived this deadly natural disaster. The Impossible is one of them. Kinda sorta.

The Impossible stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as Henry and Maria, a British couple vacationing in Thailand with their three sons. When the tsunami hits, husband and wife are separated in the blast, she with their eldest son (Tom Holland), he with their two youngest (Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast). Maria suffers extensive injuries, and her half of the movie details how she and her boy got to an overcrowded hospital and how she distracts the child so he doesn't see what bad shape she's in. Henry's half is his search for Maria, who he refuses to believe has died, while also trying to get the littler kids to safety.

Writer Sergio G. Sánchez and director Juan Antonio Bayona previously made a splash with their Spanish-language horror movie The Orphanage. This is their first Hollywood-driven effort, despite the fact that The Impossible's origins are in Spain. Though based on a true story, The Impossible has drawn some understandable criticism for the fact that it's changed the nationality of the real family from Spanish to British in order to cast two good-looking white actors in the lead roles. Others have questioned the decision to portray foreign visitors instead of people who actually lived in the affected countries. Naturally, the reasons for all of the above are that the movie studio thought they could make more money this way.

Luckily, backward corporate policies don't stop The Impossible from being a pretty good movie—and if you can ignore the color of their skin, all the actors turn in outstanding performances. Bayona otherwise avoids scrubbing up the reality of the situation to make his movie prettier, instead sticking to a straight-ahead aesthetic that's all about the journey. Once the tsunami hits, the script is all forward momentum, chronicling the long struggle from danger to safety. While The Impossible does portray tearful reunions and admirable acts of courage, it mostly avoids mawkish sentiment. Life isn't seen as mystical, and we aren't told that we're all connected. No: Terrible things happen, and they continue to be terrible until it's finally over. When it ends, The Impossible leaves you feeling relieved rather than uplifted.