Saturday, January 7, 2017

Movie Review: "Lion"

Lion is billed as a "feel-good movie." While it's certainly more upbeat than many of the movies released this holiday season, it certainly manipulates your emotions on the way there, although that's not entirely a bad thing.

Saroo (a fantastic and adorable Sunny Pawar) is a five-year-old boy living in a small rural, impoverished village in India. He is raised by his mother, an uneducated woman who makes her living carrying rocks. Saroo helps his older brother Guddu, whom he idolizes, with the odd jobs he does to make money for the family. For a young boy, Saroo is tough and strong, and wants to help make whatever difference he can for his family, plus he likes being in the middle of the action when he gets to accompany Guddu.

One night, he convinces Guddu to take him along when he goes looking for nighttime work at the train station. He leaves Saroo to wait for him at the station while he goes to look for the foreman; bored with waiting, Saroo explores one of the empty trains and falls asleep. The next thing he knows, he is stuck on the train for several days, forced to forage for whatever trash he can find, until it lets him off in Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from home. Not speaking the same dialect as those in Calcutta, unable to communicate who he is or where he is from, he fends for himself for a while until he is taken to an orphanage.

While the orphanage tries to search for Saroo's family with the limited information they have, they are unsuccessful, so ultimately Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), and he is taken to Australia to live with them. A year later, the couple adopts a troubled young boy from the orphanage as well.

Some 20 years later, while in graduate school, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) begins thinking about his natural family, and whether they still think and wonder what became of him. He decides he must try and find them, although that task is like finding a needle in a haystack, since he never could figure out the correct name of the village he came from, or even how to find people so far off the grid, if they even were still there (or alive, for that matter).

Encouraged by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara), trying to find the train station where he was first taken from becomes an obsessive task, one which threatens his studies, his job, and his relationships with his parents (especially his emotionally fragile mother) and his girlfriend. But how can he not do everything in his power to find his real family? And if he does, what will that do to John and Sue?

This film is based on a true story, but I knew nothing about it, so it was as much a mystery/thriller for me as it was a drama. It really raises a lot of interesting questions, though. What happens to lost children in poor and developing countries, and what dangers do they face? How can a poor, uneducated family marshal any available resources to find a lost child? What leads people to adopt children from another country, another culture, and remain positive in the face of emotional difficulties suffered by the children?

Lion is essentially a film in two parts, one chronicling young Saroo's harrowing journey and one following Saroo's quest to find his family. At the center of the film are the two Saroos, Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel. Pawar, in his film debut, is pitch-perfect. He is adorable, feisty, brave, and vulnerable. Patel is utterly magnificent as well, and his performance shows an emotional depth that his previous performances in more feel-good movies like Slumdog Millionaire and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series only hinted at. This is the crowning performance of Patel's career to date, and it is one worthy of at least an Oscar nomination, if not the award itself.

Kidman doesn't have a very large role but it is a quietly powerful and emotional one. She continues to transform herself physically and emotionally for her roles, and you both admire the sacrifices she has made yet feel for her powerlessness in the face of both of her sons. She appears vulnerable and yet her quiet strength is fascinating. Mara's role doesn't really transcend that of the supporting girlfriend, but she does well with what she is given. Both Abhishek Bharate and Priyanka Bose, who play Saroo's brother and mother, respectively, bring heart and emotion to their small but crucial roles.

Incredibly, this is Director Garth Davis' first full-length film; to date he has only directed two television shows, a documentary, and a short film, although he is renowned for his commercials. Yet he showed immense talent and restraint in his work on Lion; in another's hands, this film could have become melodramatic, mawkish, even heavy-handed in its messaging, but Davis has created a film that sneaks up on you, one which makes you cry as it makes you think. I wouldn't be surprised to see it among the Best Picture nominees later this month, and believe it is definitely one of the best films of 2016 I've seen.

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