HOLLYWOOD—“Lion” is a movie that could have gone wrong a million different ways. It could have been saccharine, boilerplate, and given to any number of tropes. Instead it tells a story of poverty, identity, and family well keeping the focus where it needs to be.
The plot centers around young Saroo (Sunny Pawar), who lives an impoverished life in India with his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), and some younger siblings. One day Saroo is off looking for night work with his brother when he gets stuck on the wrong train and is whisked across the country to Calcutta. After a series of harrowing events he is taken in by a kind Tasmanian couple John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nichole Kidman). As Saroo grows into a man (Dev Patel) he is plagued with visions of his former family and questions about his identity. Despite his love for his adopted parents and brother, he resolves to commit to the seemingly impossible task of searching India for his hometown despite the odds and lack of leads.
Dev Patel is a seriously good actor. I enjoyed his run in “The Newsroom” as a young, social media savvy journalist. That role was a bit light-hearted. Here we see him playing a much more somber, emotional part. He does it to perfection. He makes you feel how tied Saroo is to his past. I enjoyed the scenes of him walking around Hobart or in the kitchen at a friend’s party completely awash in the knowledge that his family doesn’t know what became of him. The skill to play a haunted person is rare, and I feel Patel’s performance was comparable with Casey Affleck’s in “Manchester by the Sea.”
Kidman is great as Saroo’s adopted mother. She isn’t a main focus in the film, but the scenes where she does appear are powerful. She delivers a truly great monologue, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it nets a best supporting actress nomination for her. Sunny Pawar was extremely impressive as young Saroo. His performance was something any actor could be proud of. He was tremendous in bringing out the confusion and desperation of his situation as he finds himself further and further from home.
One of the best things about this film is it did not shy away from the hardships Saroo faced in India. Much of the movie depicts the trials and tribulations of grinding povery, especially its effect on children. Danger waits everywhere for them. Adults with horrible intents stalk the shadows waiting to exploit them in any number of horrible ways. This is depicted with a straightforward, realist gaze. We see the effects it has on Saroo’s adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa). This was a very smart storytelling decision to show how hard things can be even when one leaves that situation.
A great score and truly excellent cinematography from Greig Fraser enhance the film. I’ll hand it to director Garth Davis and writer Luke Davies, they avoided some mistakes that could have turned this movie into another “The Blind Side” type disaster. Buzzfeed’s Allison Willmore rightfully praised the film for managing to avoid any white savior type tropes.
If there was anything wrong here I’ll say I wasn’t so crazy for the subtle appeals to destiny. I’m not a big believer in that kind of thing, and I felt that takes something away from Saroo’s tenacity in surviving and finding his way home.
Overall it was great. Despite some appeals to destiny and such the film was not overly romantic, saccharine, avoided tropes, and was hopeful without being overly cathartic. Absorbing, touching, and a major step up for Patel, “Lion” stands as an impressive movie in an already fantastic 2016.