There are an awful lot of white faces in The Impossible, an account of the Indian Ocean tsunami from director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage). In fact, if you didn’t know the grim reality, you may get the impression that very few natives of Thailand, where the action is set, were hurt or killed by this disaster. The film may as well be subtitled Rescue the Rich Caucasians!

Not that the families vacationing when the destructive waves hit suffered any less, but a little parity would have gone a long way toward making this mostly mawkish tale palatable. This “true story” focuses on a British family: Mum and Pop Maria and Henry (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor), and their children, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). They’re staying in a fancy resort when the tsunami hits without warning, sweeping away everything in its path. The family is separated.

The effects are spectacular, terrifying in their portrayal of the rushing water’s ferocity, with overhead shots of palm trees bending and houses shattered to dust. The film offers shots of underwater destruction as well, particularly what happens to Maria as she’s tossed and swirled helplessly in the muddy drink. She manages to find Lucas, and they both assume the rest of the family is dead. Maria insists they save a little blond boy before they climb a tree—-Maria’s leg torn apart—-and await saving themselves.

Saintlike selflessness is the dominant theme, as Maria, even as her condition worsens, insists that Lucas go around the hospital they end up at offering whatever help he can. Dialogue runs sentimental, such as when Maria’s first words to a doctor (she being a doctor herself), are: “You see that boy? I’m all he’s got in the world!” instead of, say, “Give me some fucking antibiotics.” The warm, knowing gazes between mother and son quickly become gag-worthy.

Still, Bayona manages to capture the trauma, chaos, and desperation of the tragedy, and it’s appropriately horrific, even if he ties the story together with a too-neat bow. After a portrait so gut-wrenching, sunshine need not necessarily apply.