Review | ‘Thirteen Lives’ at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Cinema Society

An Intense True Story Made Even More Moving in the Hands of Director Ron Howard

Credit: Courtesy SBIFF

I was on the edge of my seat the whole time — both as a mom and as a slightly claustrophobic person — at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Cinema Society screening of Thirteen Lives, now available on Amazon and in select theaters. (Try to see it in a theater if you can, the cinematography and production design are amazing.)

The film managed to keep up the suspense, despite the fact that this incredible true story of the 2018 global effort to rescue 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach who were trapped in a perilously flooded cave during a monsoon without food, water, or diving equipment was widely reported on. Not to mention, it was the subject of a 2021 National Geographic documentary, The Rescue , and  Netflix will also be releasing a six-episode drama called Thai Cave Rescue in September.

There are no spoilers with this film —I knew what was going to happen in the end —but the cave-diving scenes were so incredible, the underplayed acting so convincing, and the rich layering of details so realistic, I was swept up in the action from beginning to end. Director Ron Howard (who spoke with SBIFF’s Roger Durling after the screening about the intensity of his experiences making this movie) has been such a consistently solid and skillful filmmaker for so long, it’s easy to overlook what a difficult challenge it is to get a movie “just right” — especially a technically and culturally tricky one like Thirteen Lives

The big movie stars in the film, Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen, do an impressive job of disappearing into their roles as real-life British cave divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, but it’s the young 13 Thai actors (12 are stuck in the cave and one of their teammates stays behind to help his mother after soccer practice) and their coach, played by James Teeradon Supapunpinyo, who are truly the heart of this film.

In the post-screening interview, I was particularly struck by Howard’s comments about all the things he’s learned from making both documentaries (The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, We Feed People) and films based on real events (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) and how he incorporates improved methods into each new movie he makes. I guess even Academy Award–winning directors always have something new to learn, which is fortunate for the audiences who get to reap the benefits. 


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