December 28, 2016 11:21 AM EST

There’s a shark attack within the first two minutes of Jaume Collet-Serra’s brash, primordially enjoyable woman-vs.-nature thriller The Shallows, which is good news for impatient sorts. But for those who take pleasure in the long, slow dive, the movie’s riches are even greater. The Shallows was by far the best mainstream movie to be released in the summer of 2016, a season bigfooted by superhero extravaganzas that ranged from terrible (Suicide Squad) to OK (Captain America). But it was also one of the most perfectly constructed pictures of the whole year, a taut, magnetic, visually splendid little package anchored by a sly star turn from Blake Lively. Because there are so many movies and so little time, The Shallows may have evaded the radar of filmgoers who otherwise try to catch everything of value. Here’s why you should chomp down on it.

Lively stars as Nancy, a lithe young blonde with sun-kissed skin who has trekked to an unspecified spot in Mexico to surf off a “secret beach.” She’s instantly annoying: The driver who has agreed to take her to this secret spot, Carlos (Óscar Jaenada), has to remind her to stop scrolling through the pictures on her phone, lest she miss the beauty of the forest they’re driving through: Their small truck appears to be skimming through corridors of sunlight flanked with lit-from-within greenery. Nancy immediately concedes that he’s right—and once she really does start looking around her, her face is transformed, as if it’s been opened to some new idea that doesn’t really have words to match. Suddenly, she’s not annoying at all.

Nancy’s mother has recently died, and Nancy has been so distraught that she’s dropped out of med school. This secret beach was one of her mother’s favorite places, which is why it’s so important for her to make this trek. The friend who was supposed to come along on this day has fallen ill. (Her excuse is “Irish flu.”) So Nancy is alone, but she’s an experienced surfer, and she assures Carlos she’ll be all right.

She will be, but barely. What happens next isn’t just a test of her fortitude, but also of ours. To explain too much would give the movie’s glorious, sometimes gory surprises away, but let’s just say they involve a whale’s carcass, a battered old buoy and a sleek, angry gray beast, half prehistoric, half demonic, who appears to have a personal vendetta against our heroine. I saw the movie shortly after it opened, last June, in theaters. At one point Lively’s Nancy, ragged and sunburned from her ordeal, commits an act that made me yell at the screen. Afterward, I couldn’t recall what I’d said, but the friend I was with confirmed my exact words as “F—K that shark!”

The Shallows could be an art-house movie disguised as a multiplex thriller. Collet-Serra—who made his name with the horror chiller Orphan, before moving on to the Liam Neeson vehicles Unknown and Non-Stop—knows how to construct a picture soundly without sacrificing vitality. The Shallows is almost sculptural, like something made in a welder’s workshop: If you watch closely, you can see the soldering, the way one shot connects with another in a way that’s sometimes jarring, sometimes smooth. The other way to watch is just to give yourself over to its shivery thrills, and to the dramatic wave curl of its beauty. The picture was shot on the coast of Queensland, Australia, and cinematographer Flavio Labiano squeezes every bright, glistening drop of color and light from the landscape. This is a world of surreal blues and impossible greens, a color swirl of action and movement. It makes you feel like a surfer, even if you’re not.

At the center of it all is Lively. Though there are other characters in the movie—a dawdling, drunken bum, a pair of lackadaisical, vaguely flirtatious guy surfers—what we’re really talking about here is a girl and a shark. Lively is terrific here, playing a young woman who becomes a heroine by degrees. It’s her character’s job to be the rational one, the shrewd warrior who uses logic and calm in the face of nature’s thuggishness. What Nancy pulls off is a surprise even to herself, and Lively puts that across subtly: At one point she shares precious space on a small rock with an injured seagull. She eyes the bird with annoyance at first, until she realizes he’s the only ally she’s got. This is where you realize that Nancy’s kindness is the flip side of her nerve—she couldn’t have one without the other. Lively keeps both of these things in focus, but casually. She’s not the kind of actress who shows you how hard she’s working, a quality that can lead people to assume she’s doing nothing.

And face it: Lively is at a disadvantage because she’s long-legged and blond in that California-girl way. (Remember the trick of that early scene, where we’re led to think she’s just another vapid, phone-fixated young woman?) It’s easy to cut an actress like Lively down. She got her start in a show called Gossip Girl, after all. And how sophisticated we seem when we praise class acts like Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton! Performers like Lively are convenient vessels for lazy judgment. And sexism, like dandelion seeds, pushes up and out everywhere. Lively has already proved she knows what she’s doing—in terrific performances, like the one she gave in Ben Affleck’s The Town—but perhaps even more than many actresses, she’ll be required to prove herself anew each time. No problem. She can handle it. If she can kick this shark’s ass, she can do just about anything.

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