Film Review: 'Lion'
For most of us, home is right here. For others, home is somewhere else entirely - and getting back there can be quite the journey.
That's the overwhelming - but welcoming - sentiment of the Garth Davis-directed Lion, a whirlwind tale of a boy, Saroo (played here by Sunny Pawar), whose life takes a complete 180 when, as a child in rural India, accidentally boards a decommissioned passenger train and is taken 1,500 miles away from home, separating him from his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose). Still to come; he's not able to speak the local language of Bengali, the threat of child abduction looms, and he sleeps on the streets every night on a thin sheet of cardboard.
It's a rough life for the tiny child, and we are right there with him. Our camera angles of Saroo and of the world around him are low and aligned with his perspective, making the hustle and bustle of the city streets seem unnavigable. The score speeds to a crescendo when it hits the hardest, as his life comes dangerously close to being ruined in several key moments.
Although he's not completely helpless; even at his young age, Saroo has an incredible sense of self-preservation, doing his best to escape whenever he smells danger. It's in here where we see just how big of an actor sleeps in Sawar's tiny frame. He is jaw-droppingly convincing as a lost child who digs deep to unearth a willpower to steel himself and survive. Right up there with Neel Sethi in the recent Jungle Book reboot and Jacob Tremblay of Room, these child actors are sure forces to be reckoned with once they grow up.
READ MORE: Film Review: 'Room'
Sawar's performance and Garth's directing, in unison, are the keys to the success of Lion; the movie is engineered to utilizes that type of empathy with Saroo to propel the viewer on a whirlwind of a ride alongside the child. Although it is not quite as energetically up there as Slumdog Millionare, we welcome the introspection in the second act, as we transition to a Saroo in his twenties (played here effectively by Dev Patel) with his adoptive family in his father John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman), both well-played in their respective roles.
Lion has already laid it on thick with the homesickness of Saroo as a child, and it begins to creep its way back into him as a young adult. But unlike the first act, which is all about frenetically moving around and about, the second act slows down for Saroo to reflect and reminisce - and so do we. Should he find his way back home, where the commuter train first took him away? Complicating things are his deep emotional ties to his Australian home and family, a budding love in a classmate, Lucy (Rooney Mara), a fellow adopted brother in Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), and more. He's even adopted an Australian accent.
Any cliches of the genre are forgotten just because Lion proves to be so poetically transcendent and uplifting in its storytelling that it's like we're along for the ride. In a sense, it feels so perfectly Hollywood-y that it seems impossible to believe that all of this truly happened - and in that sense, Lion is a perfectly adapted screenplay from Saroo's own memoir, A Long Way Home. Lion is faithfully energetic to its source material that to know the film is mostly true-to-life makes it all the more heartwarming.
It's not the best movie of the year - the talent pool of 2016 was almost insurmountable - but that does not change the fact that Lion is a sweeping and universal tale of all backgrounds and upbringings, and relatable to absolutely no fault. There aren't as many movies out there that can bring out as big of a smile as the one Lion does.
And don't be ashamed to cry at the end - there's millions more that are right there with you.
Rated PG-13. 118 minutes.
Written by Luke Davies (screenplay) and Saroo Brierly (author, "A Long Way Home).
Directed by Garth Davis.
Starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, and Rooney Mara.