Lion (2016)

Directed by Garth Davis
Written by Luke Davies

Sometimes true life can be more compelling than any story an accomplished author can possibly imagine penning. In fact, true stories are almost always more affecting simply because they are true, there is no denying their authenticity, even if adaptations often take liberties to enhance the story even more. Lion is based on a true story, which on the surface may not be too impossible to imagine, it’s not a stranger than fiction scenario even if it tells the story of an incredible journey, but it does make the emotional notes all the more impactful when they come along. And it’s that incredible journey which makes it incredibly engaging from start to finish. Even as it may settle a bit into the poverty/misery sub-genre, this dramatic adventure works by connecting to its characters and endearing itself to all kinds of personal relationships, with the definition of what makes a family at the forefront.

Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a young Indian boy who follows his brother Guddu around everywhere he goes, scraping together just enough to contribute to their struggling family which consists of their hard working mother and little sister. But when Saroo tags along with his brother one night to a train station, he gets stranded after exploring an abandoned train which suddenly takes off, transporting him thousands of miles away from home, leaving Saroo on his own, terrified, and longing to be home. He makes his own way as best he can, but soon ends up in an orphanage, where he is graciously adopted by Australian parents (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham). When Saroo becomes grown (Dev Patel), a sudden memory inspires him to seek out his family in India. Soon Saroo’s endless dedication to the search threatens to derail his own ambitions in life, along with his relationships with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and adoptive family.

What I immediately appreciated about Lion was how director Garth Davis seemingly thrusts us into the story. Young Saroo is the focus of much of the first half of the film, and Sunny Pawar really does a wonderful job in this role, anchoring the foundation of the film in impressive fashion. As his tribulations are chronicles, it at times feels like a greatest hits list, hearkening back to films like Slumdog Millionaire which revel in the struggles and poverty of its main characters. If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not. While Lion may hit some of these familiar notes, Sunny Pawar and director Garth Davis managed to keep me engaged and invested in little Saroo’s future. I think anyone who has a son, daughter, niece, nephew or even a mother or father can sympathize with Saroo’s struggle and the tremendous predicament in which he finds himself.

As the film transitions to the time Saroo spends in Australia, the focus shifts considerably, as does the tone. The tone is much more hopeful, as though he has found his way out of his struggles and, at the very least, has found a family structure that will be there for him, to care for him. And his parents are truly wonderful. Nicole Kidman especially gives an Oscar worthy performance as a mother who loves her children more than most. The film once again turns heartbreaking when Saroo begins to search for his real family, and themes of love and family surge to the surface like they weren’t before. The new dynamic between Saroo’s longing for his Indian family while also being endlessly appreciative of his Australian one is a delicate balance, and one which Garth Davis strikes beautifully. The sense of family found in this picture really resonates throughout. Jealousy and regret take a much needed back seat to love and support.

The film is not peerless. Rooney Mara’s character doesn’t really need to exist here, but she is a fine actress, so her presence is okay, even if unnecessary. And the second act has a tendency to drag just a little compared to the film’s other two acts, but overall the film is very engaging, and really quite beautiful. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is tremendous. It’s a little surprising Fraser doesn’t have an Oscar nod yet, though perhaps this is his year. The score, composed by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, is also soaring, to match the emotional highs and lows of the film.

As we come out of the second act of the film emotions once again brim to the top and we receive one of the most touching, authentic and emotionally powerful moments in film this year. It is hard not to have your heart broken into a thousand pieces and put back together in the two hour span of Lion. It hits familiar notes for the genre, but it has its power in people, and some truly wonderful performances of those people. It’s not a perfect movie, but the opening and closing of this film are as good as anything this year, making it a well worth while end of year film.

***1/2 – Great

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