“Lion” Movie Review


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     Imagine being 5 years old and depending upon the ingenuity of your slightly older brother to determine whether or not you will get to eat that night.  That’s the situation in the opening sequence of Garth Davis’ “Lion”, as brothers Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and Saroo (Sunny Pawar) attempt to gather coal from a storage area on a train that runs through their town somewhere in India.  The duo successfully evade one of the guards on the train and get away with enough coal to ensure their family will be able to drink a small bowl full of milk that night.  The story begins in 1986, where we see a struggling family with no father.  Only the two brothers, a younger sister, and their mother, Kamla (Priyanka Bose).  These initial scenes indicate the plight Saroo’s family, as well as millions of others in India, find themselves in on a daily basis.  Struggling to get by on virtually nothing.  And thankful for what they do have, especially for each other.

     “Lion” is both a moving and enlightening experience based on a true story in which Saroo finds himself lost some one thousand kilometers away from home and left to survive on the streets of Calcutta with no one to help him.  Guddu, works nights in order to help their mother keep a roof over their heads and on one of those nights, Saroo convinces him to allow him to tag along.  They get there by train, but upon arrival, Guddu runs into the predictable problem of Saroo being tired and has difficulty getting him to wake up.  He implores Saroo to stay put on a bench at the train station while he leaves to find out if there will be work for him that night.  But when Saroo later wakes up, he doesn’t see anyone and gets on a train already waiting for passengers.  In doing so, he finds himself trapped in one of the empty cars and is then transported far away from a home of which he does not know its name.

     The work here by Davis in directing Sunny Pawar, who does not speak English, is extraordinary.  You could easily make a case for a Best Actor nomination for Pawar in what is a foreign language role, but the non verbal and physical acting is as good as I’ve seen in any performance this year.  His Saroo and the situation he finds himself in will, at times, break your heart, but somehow this kid always manages to put a smile on your face with his willingness to consistently make the best of each scenario he faces, regardless of the circumstances.  The filmmakers seek to put a face on the thousands of street kids in India on any given day, and those who take advantage of them in a myriad of nefarious ways.  Fortunately for Saroo, he is taken in at a local orphanage and given up for adoption by an Australian couple who live in Tasmania.

     John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley’s (Nicole Kidman) first meeting with Saroo is heartwarming and meaningful, as it signals a significant change in Saroo’s life.  A life he will later refer to as “privileged”, since he no longer will need to worry about the basic necessities needed to live.  As the film transitions to over 20 years later, we see a grown Saroo (now played by Dev Patel), who has blossomed into a successful and well adjusted young man.  His girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara), loves him and the couple live together in an apartment, spending their time with both family and friends.  But one night, something triggers a feeling Saroo has buried deep inside.  He longs to find his mother, his brother, and his sister in India, but has no idea where or how to start looking.  With this point in the story taking place in 2008, one of his friends points out a new application called Google Earth as a possible method in which he can begin his search.  

     The amount of guilt Saroo has begins to drive him in a negative and obsessive way, causing friction in all of his relationships, as he relentlessly searches nearly every part of India.  A massive undertaking to say the least since he doesn't know his mother’s name, nor does he know the name of the town he once lived in.  Few films this year will embody the power of love and the human spirit the way “Lion” so effortlessly achieves.  Davis, working with Saroo Brierley himself as well as screenwriter Luke Davies in the adaption of the book “A Long Way Home”, brilliantly constructs a well thought out narrative that includes the elements of a coming of age story, but also exhibits a tremendous amount of heart.  Also of note are the breathtaking compositions by cinematographer Greg Fraser (“Zero Dark Thirty”), as every image makes incredible use of the settings in India, communicating visually the insurmountable odds Saroo faced while surviving on the streets.  

     There have been several films in 2016 which told powerful and important true stories.  Many of which, “Hidden Figures” and “Hacksaw Ridge” immediately come to mind, will no doubt join “Lion” as Best Picture nominees and deservedly so.  “Lion” is a monumental film achievement and is one of the motion pictures of the year, as it conveys an amazing story of survival while facing an impossible situation and the effects of the emotional baggage we all carry from childhood into our adult lives.  GRADE: A