‘The Impossible’: A moving tribute to the power of family | 3 stars

“The Impossible” is equal parts horrifying and hopeful.

The film also is among the most morally and ethically interesting movies to come along in some time.

It’s based on one family’s true story from the tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean the day after Christmas 2004.

Across nine countries, more than 230,000 people died — enough to put a body in every seat of the Sprint Center, Livestrong Sporting Park, Kauffman Stadium and Community America Ballpark and still fill Arrowhead Stadium twice.

The film and its director, Juan Antonio Bayona, have been criticized for focusing on one upper-middle-class Caucasian family vacationing in Thailand when disaster hits. The intent is to bring home the headlines and make the unimaginable real and relevant. It’s called “The Impossible,” not “The Entirely Expected.”

But Bayona focuses even tighter — close-ups of bleeding hands, whispering mouths, terrified eyes, a wedding ring from a missing spouse. Then when he pulls back, we are humbled by the immensity of the tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people, all looking to fill the absences in their newly wrecked lives.

The film even starts out demanding that you concentrate on what your senses are taking in: a black screen with the sound of waves lapping the shore so faintly it almost seems like a dream. But there’s also a hum and a thrum that menace the visions of seaside tranquility.

After celebrating Christmas, Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) relax poolside with their three boys. Strange winds begin to blow, and beachside palm trees stagger and surrender to an unimaginable rush of water.

The ocean engulfs their resort, washing them miles inland. Maria finds her oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland). Henry and the other two boys are nowhere around. The resort and the village around it: obliterated.

Mother and son now must walk through the wreckage of a foreign country. Maria has deep cuts to her torso, and a fillet of skin and muscle hangs off the back of her thigh.

Despite her condition and their urgent need for rescue, she implores her son to help a young boy crying under some wreckage. Soon they all are found by some locals, who whisk them to a makeshift hospital, with hundreds, perhaps thousands of other people.

The rest of the family, meanwhile, is in another part of the country. They’re safe, but Henry is faced with a horrible decision: Stay with the little ones or send them on to safer shelter with people he barely knows so he might search for Maria and Lucas.

(If children in danger are the low-hanging fruit of emotional drama, this film is abundant with it.)

“The Impossible” is essentially a sun-baked horror film, only instead of a slasher in a hockey mask, the tsunami is the truly unstoppable force (the effects here are tremendous). Even the ending is reminiscent of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “Halloween,” as survivors wonder what in the world just happened.

Bayona previously directed the Spanish horror film “The Orphanage,” and Watts perfected her terrified reactions in “The Ring” and “King Kong.” She’s terrific here.

She spends much of the film in a hospital bed, but whether she’s coughing up blood or slowly losing her life, her Maria is in truly harrowing shape by film’s end. It’s one of the best performances of 2012 (for Oscar consideration, the film was released in December in select markets).

Tom Holland is powerful as young Lucas. He was 14 at the time of filming (16 now) and shows remarkable range: terrified as he’s floating away on a wayward mattress, earnest as he attempts to find missing children for panicked parents speaking a different language.

McGregor is similarly good. He blubbers uncontrollably when he calls home to tell his family of the disaster, and it’s enough to make you want the movie to stop so you can check on your own kids.

The question of why Bayona focused on this one family of five rich palefaces when the majority of victims were poor Indians and Asians is a fair one. Tourists made up just 3 percent of the tsunami’s victims. It troubles the film all the way through.

But perhaps that’s the point. These people are not of this place. Maria, Henry and the boys are separated not only from one another, but miles from anything familiar. Truly horrifying, considering many of us freak out when we misplace our cellphones for a few minutes.

“The Impossible” gets to our core human story of loneliness, our need for connection and the crushing ache of separation. Just as importantly, though, the film shows that our very existence depends on thousands of small kindnesses. Unidentified natives load victims into pickup trucks; a stranger loans a man a simple pen and paper.

The dilemmas of how and when and whom to help resonate for days and weeks after seeing the film. “The Impossible” makes clear that who survives and why isn’t up to simple Darwinism or up-by-the-bootstraps stick-to-it-tiveness. How we get by depends entirely on an unseen network of humanity.

There’s a moment in the film when a young boy runs into the arms of a man, presumably his missing father. Shown from afar, they squeeze each other tight. The young boy, his head on the man’s shoulders, smiles and drums his fingers on the man’s naked back.

Even that small, unconscious act of comfort speaks volumes about our need for one another.

The “Impossible” of the title refers not only to this family’s story or the idea of a 90-foot wall of water destroying everything in its path. It speaks to the improbability that any one of us is here at all.