Lion is directed by Garth Davis and stars Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Roony Mara, David Wenham and introduces Indian child actor Sunny Pawar.
This movie is based on the frankly amazing true story of a five-year old who in 1986 was separated from his birth mother and family through circumstances that are tragic and all-too-real in the unfortunate circumstances of India’s day-to-day existence. This boy, Saroo, ends up on a train, being unwittingly and unwillingly taken over a thousand miles from a home town that he doesn’t even know the proper name of. He ends up in Calcutta, a stranger in a strange land who can’t even speak Bengali, the local language, because where he comes from they speak Hindi. India is a country with 22 official languages and over a thousand are spoken in various regions. He wanders around the city, almost being abducted many times before he ends up in a children’s home and is adopted by a Tazmanian couple. It’s a Dickens-like success story for him in many ways, yet when he grows to a young 20-something and it’s time for him to move away from home, the unresolved reality of his young life won’t leave him alone. He begins a search using the then-new Google Maps to find where he came from. This search soon consumes his entire existence, drives him away from his friends and family and eventually leads him back to India and his childhood home.
There are many ways this story could have been told, but slow and steady and very un-melodramatic was how director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies chose to approach this and their choices were very well made. The first act is really where this movie gets its claws into your heart, so to speak, with the absolutely amazing performance by Sunny Pawar as a young Saroo and Abhishek Bharate as his older brother, Guddu. Their relationship is special and real, with Guddu lovingly looking after his young brother and Saroo idolizing Guddu. The direction here is so subtle you don’t even notice how good it is, how crafted the scenery and framing are. The cinematography is hyper-realistic yet at the same time the mix of long shots, overheads and close-ups are put together so you feel completely engaged at every moment. You get the poverty, confusion, overpopulation and dismal living conditions for so many in India, but the story tells itself in such a way that none of this is being thrown harshly in your face. It’s simply presented that this is how things are and these are the places and situations that young Saroo lived through. And in so doing, this young 5-year old boy is someone you come to know and care about in a subtly overwhelming way. Without this setup, the rest of the movie would mean a lot less.
Dev Patel gives a great performance as the older Saroo and the anguish he experiences in his struggle to remember enough about his childhood and the incredible journey he made so he can trace it back to his home. But as good as he is, probably the best performance comes from Nicole Kidman as his adopted mother, Sue Brierley. Her relationship to Saroo and their other adopted son is nuanced and complex and I really appreciated how Saroo’s understanding of that is itself flawed and inexperienced, as it is with most young people who just haven’t lived enough to understand some of the subtleties that come with being a parent. There is one scene in particular near the end when she explains to Saroo why she and her husband chose to adopt him and it’s that scene where all the pent-up emotion the movie has been building up until then starts to come out.
This is one of those movies where you are going to absolutely lose it emotionally at the end. There’s just no way to avoid it and it’s not because the director is shamelessly manipulating you ala Steven Spielberg. Don’t get me wrong – I love Spielberg – but in this case it’s not a crafty mix of music and shot framing and melodramatic acting that gets you. It’s the plain tenderness and joy of connecting with the story and the characters in such a way that you feel like you are there, you are part of Saroo’s quest and you have a personal investment in seeing it through to its successful end.
This movie is nominated for Best Picture while Dev Patel is nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Nicole Kidman for Best Supporting Actress. It’s also up for Cinematography, Best Original Score and Adapted Screenplay Oscars. I can see any of these happening at this point, but I need to get through the rest of the films on the list before I can really give my final take on that. Patel won the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor, so we’ll see how this plays out.
In terms of a recommendation, I think it’s pretty obvious I loved this movie and without hesitation I give it a rating of Sheer Awesomeness. This is one of those movies that is not sexy or adventurous or filled with blow-your-mind special effects but it will definitely change the way you look at some things in life and will make you feel great. If you haven’t seen it, do so as soon as possible.
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