When the Tsunami of 2004 hit the coastline of Thailand, the loss was devastating and took the lives of 240,000 people. Without warning, families vacationing in the idyllic seaside resorts were instantly buried under crushing waves that uprooted trees and tore buildings apart. Though the loss was immediate and pervasive, there was one family vacationing in Khao Lak who experienced a seemingly impossible protection that eventually brought them through the ordeal together.
Based on a book by Maria Belon and powerfully brought to the screen by director Juan Antonio Bayona, the screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez takes us on the intense journey that leaves the audience as depleted as the Bennett family when they are finally on the plane heading for home.
Maria Bennett (Naomi Watts) is a physician who has taken a break from her practice to raise her three sons. Her husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) is working on a project in Japan when they decide to celebrate Christmas in the tropical paradise. Their three sons are Lucas (Tom Holland) who was ten, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) who was eight and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) who was five. As the family frolicked poolside, they suddenly stop in shocked curiosity when they hear something huge approaching. Within seconds, they see palm trees falling and they are engulfed in a 98 foot wave.
The tension of this true story is experienced first from the perspective of Maria and Lucas who quickly find each other after their three-minute tumult of being propelled through rushing currents of water, tree limbs and debris. Thinking they are the only survivors, they start walking to find help, stopping only to save the life of a young Swedish boy, Daniel (Johan Sundberg), then all take refuge in a strong Banyan tree where they are found by local villagers. But Maria is seriously injured and, although Lucas is only ten, he stays by her side and tries to advocate for her care when they take her to a swamped hospital.
Then we are taken through the tsunami experience with Henry who emerges from the water quickly and finds his son Thomas high in a tree. After rescuing him, they then hear the voice of the youngest boy, Simon, also clinging to the trunk of a palm tree. Providentially, Simon had just learned how to swim. Their reunion is joyous but incomplete. Henry cannot stop putting himself and his youngest sons in danger while he continues to search for his wife and Lucas.
What makes this film more significant is that the events of the film are not only based on a true event but they are also the actual experiences of the Bennett family. Therefore, the struggles they experience and the decisions they make are not the imaginations of a creative writer. This enables the viewers to have a real time shared experience with them. When Henry abandons his young sons to strangers who take them to the mountains while he continues to search for his wife and older son, we can see the foolishness of this desperate decision and realize that he is acting in shock rather than reasonably.
How any of us would respond in moments of catastrophic events is unknown. Although we hope we would be wise and courageous, we never know until we’re tested. In this moment, the Bennetts were able to accomplish the impossible by a providential series of events that brought them not only through the danger but also brought them back together as a family. That is the most for which any of us could hope.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. What is the most catastrophic event you have ever experienced? As you look back at your actions and the decisions you made in the midst of that event, which do you think were good ones and if there were any that were unwise, what were those?
2. The real Bennett family is Spanish, however, in this film, they were cast as British. Do you think this shift in language and culture was a good choice? Why do you answer as you do?
3. In the final scene as Maria silently cries from the safety of her plane flying over the devastation, we are able to see her release of the trauma. What do you think gave this family the strength they have?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.