A 250-foot wave is nothing to sneeze at. But in the grand scheme of disaster movies, The Wave is admirably and likably modest. Roland Emmerich and his acolytes have escalated the scale of the American disaster film genre to absurd heights; now it’s not just a boat that’s capsized or a skyscraper on fire, it’s hurricanes the size of continents or the entire planet under attack from an ancient Mayan prophesy. The Wave really is just about one single wave that decimates a Norwegian town, and its impact on a small group of characters, primarily a geologist and his family. That’s it — but that’s all it needs to be. This film is a reminder that disaster movies work best when they focus on the characters and their struggles, not the big special effects they’re running from.

The geologist is named Kristian (Kristoffer Joner). For years, he’s worked with a team of scientists who predict rockslides before they can occur and spark tsunamis that could decimate the tiny fjord of Geiranger. Kristian’s on the verge of accepting a new job working for an oil company in a new town, but on the day he’s supposed to pack up his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) and kids Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) for their new home, he discovers alarming new data from inside the mountain above the vulnerable seaside village. Like Jor-El warning the Kryptonian scientists that their planet’s destruction was imminent, Kristian pleads with his colleagues to evacuate Geiranger before its too late — except he doesn’t send his children to safety. His stalling leaves his own family right in harm’s way when the inevitable happens.

What comes next isn’t groundbreaking — except in the literal sense — but the suspense, action, and melodrama are all rock solid (except in the literal sense). To be sure, director Roar Uthaug has learned a thing or two from classic disaster movies, and he’s littered his supporting cast with all the stereotypes you see in this sort of film: The Skeptic Who Doubts the Hero Until Its Too Late; The Innocent Who Dies to Prove That Survival In a Disaster Is Completely Random; The Selfish Prick Who Cracks Under Pressure. But his central characters, Kristian and his family, are convincingly three-dimensional, and Uthaug spends enough time (nearly half the picture) exploring the ups and downs of their daily lives before the tsunami hits to ensure the audience is fully invested in their fate.

Watching The Wave, it’s hard not to compare it to something like San Andreas, this summer’s big blockbuster disaster flick, and also a story about a family trying to ride out a deadly act of God. Though their basic outlines are identical, the two films’ approaches to that outline are almost completely opposite. San Andreas is all about spectacle; not just one earthquake, but a whole series of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded (followed by a tsunami that makes the one in The Wave look like a ripple in a puddle). Its effects are certainly impressive, but they’re all-consuming; there’s so much time devoted to wallowing in empty digital destruction that you barely get to know the characters fighting for their lives. That leaves very little development of the hero (who literally goes from selfless helicopter rescue pilot to job deserter in the span of one scene), and almost no space to care about him or his quest.

The Wave seems to have taken movies like San Andreas as a cautionary tale, not about earthquake preparedness, but about narrative economy in the face of big special effects. It takes what American disaster movies do right (impressive and intimidating visuals) and ditches what they mess up (cartoonish characters). There are a few silly moments (Note to self: Never wear headphones while skateboarding or you apparently won’t hear an earthquake or hear the tsunami warning sirens) but they’re few and far between. And by the time the worst comes, it matters more because it feels like there’s something real at stake.