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Family Movie Review: The Shallows (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13       Length: 87 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. This girl-against-shark thriller includes a few curse words, a character so drunk that he’s passed out on the beach, and a lot of violence and gore, including a decomposing whale carcass with giant bloody bites ripped out of it, a young woman attacked and bitten by a shark and then has to perform emergency surgery on herself, a gigantic wound that is positively gushing blood, various characters bitten in half by the shark, and lots of other injuries to the girl, including being stung by jellyfish and injured on coral.

The stripped-down thriller ‘The Shallows’ is effectively unsettling. Its simplicity—this is girl vs. shark, no filler—is its greatest asset.

By Roxana Hadadi

“The Shallows” could have been renamed “Girl vs. Shark,” and that would have been fine. This barebones summer thriller is all about our central girl and our central shark, and the movie’s willingness to stick to that—to go all-in on this bloody survival tale—is what gives it such gripping effect.

The setup is simple: Medical student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively, of “The Age of Adaline”) is still reeling after her mother’s death. Desperate to get away and have some time to herself, without the pressures of her studies or her family’s grief, Adams travels to a secluded beach in Mexico. She doesn’t know the name of the place, but she remembers her mother talking about it, and when she gets there, she agrees with a couple of locals that the place is “paradise.”

It doesn’t stay paradise for long, though! Because on a beautiful morning, when paddling out for some waves, Adams comes across the decaying body of a whale. The gigantic, bloody bites taken out of it can mean only thing, and that thing is a shark, and that shark is coming for Nancy. While Nancy tries to surf away from the feeding ground, the shark launches through the wave to her, taking a chunk out of her left thigh and severing her surf board.

Even though Nancy is able to escape and swim to a grouping of rocks jutting out of the water, it seems like she’s a goner. Rapidly losing blood, with an injured foot thanks to coral on the rocks and a battered body from the wave, Nancy can’t survive that long, can she? But this Texan isn’t one to give up, and when thinking about her mother, she vows to give everything she has against the shark. “I want you to know I’m gonna fight,” Nancy promises, and so her survival becomes a methodical thing, a series of tasks, like any good medical student could handle.

First is suturing her wound, which Nancy does with her earrings and her necklace. Then is calling for help, which Nancy tries to do to strangers on the beach. Next is measuring how fast the shark can swim, by using her Casio watch (there is still product placement in this film, somehow). And finally, Nancy faces off against the shark with a variety of makeshift weapons and her own steely resolve. This is about survival, and Nancy is going to do her all to be the only one left.

Hollywood doesn’t really make B-movies anymore in its current state of superhero-obsessed mania, and the simplicity of “The Shallows” is a welcome reprieve from that. Sure, the shark is CGI, but it’s so terrifyingly huge and menacing that you’ll forget its artificialness soon enough; a scene where it jumps out of the water to bite a man in half is quite convincingly horrifying. “The Shallows” does well by doubling down on the menace of the animal, and even though the film tips its hand too often with the shark (musical cues give a lot away) it’s nevertheless quite frightening.

It’s good that Lively doesn’t have much to say during “The Shallows,” because she’s still somewhat flat and monotonous in her delivery. But her physical performance here is great, and her lean athleticism is perfect when she’s standing up on the rock, preparing to fight the shark, or for overhead shots that show her body’s smallness in comparison with the stark beauty of the abandoned landscape.

“The Shallows” isn’t the kind of spectacle movie that summer blockbusters in 2016 have become, but it’s still surprisingly visceral in its own way. And its briskness—a well-advised barely half-hour runtime—makes this a story that grabs you, shakes you, and then lets you go without overstaying its welcome.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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