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Lion Movie Review

Lion (2016) movie poster Lion

Theatrical Release: November 25, 2016 / Running Time: 118 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Garth Davis / Writers: Luke Davies (screenplay), Saroo Brierley (book A Long Way Home)

Cast: Dev Patel (Saroo Brierley), Rooney Mara (Lucy), Nicole Kidman (Sue Brierley), David Wenham (John Brierley), Sunny Pawar (Young Saroo), Abhishek Bharate (Guddu), Priyanka Bose (Kamla), Tannishtha Chatterjee (Noor), Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Rawa), Deepti Naval (Mrs. Sood), Divian Ladwa (Mantosh), Sachin Joab (Bharat), Pallavi Sharda (Prama), Arka Das (Sami)

 

If we were to compare 2016's award season offerings to other recent awards contenders, La La Land would be The Artist, an irresistible crowdpleasing outlier; Manchester by the Sea would be The Descendants, a genuine seaside tearjerker with a sense of humor and sympathy for rearing teens; and Lion would be Philomena.
Like that 2013 Weinstein drama, this film tells the true story of someone searching for a long-lost close relative. In Philomena, an old Irish woman went looking for the son she had to give up as a teenager. In Lion, a young Indian man raised in Australia tries to find the mother and brother from whom he was separated at a young age.

Lion opens somewhere in India in 1986, when Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a young child who tags along with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) stealing rocks of coal off trains and reselling them. This is how these two siblings and their single mother (Priyanka Bose) get by as part of the populous nation's large impoverished class. Saroo convinces Gaddu he's strong enough to work the night shift. But Saroo gets tired and grabs some sleep on a train station bench. When he awakens, Gaddu is nowhere to be seen. Saroo ends up on a train that rides for days, before dropping him off in an unknown part of India where Bengali, not Saroo's native Hindi, is spoken. No one can help the boy, whose stated hometown is found on no map and who doesn't have enough information to give authorities anything to work with.

Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is welcomed by his adoptive parents Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham) at the Tasmania airport.

He winds up sleeping on a piece of cardboard with other homeless children at an underground train station. Peril follows these vulnerable young boys. Even a kindly woman's hospitality gives way to a predator prepared to exploit the kid. Eventually, Saroo winds up at orphanage and is soon adopted by Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham), an Australian couple who can give him a much more comfortable life in Tasmania.

Saroo grows up (becoming Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel) educated, well-mannered, and very much a product of Australia. But, something eats away at him: the knowledge that he was separated from his loving mother and brother, whom he's certain have been looking for him ever since. He begins exploring Google Earth, having created a search radius using 1980s train speeds and what he remembers about his life-changing childhood experience. Saroo hides the search for his biological family from his adoptive one, but not from his girlfriend (Rooney Mara), who encourages him to pursue it despite the distance it creates between them.

And search, Saroo does, for several years. You'll have to see the movie to know what, if anything, he discovers.

A grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) heads to India to search for his family in "Lion."

Adapted from the real Saroo Brierley's book by Luke Davies (2006's Candy, 2015's Life), Lion is an absorbing drama that captivates in both of its distinct halves. The subtitled opening establishes Saroo's seemingly unthinkable (but apparently not unheard of) predicament and makes clear the stakes that motivate Saroo to keep searching for his roots in adulthood.
The latter half is even more compelling, the modern Saroo's wrestles with his identity and privilege making for salient contemporary drama akin to the bulk of Philomena.

Philomena remained on the bubble for most of awards season, before being resoundingly embraced by the Academy, who ended up nominating it for four Oscars. Lion, which also hails from The Weinstein Company, could very well end up with comparable acknowledgement from the Academy Awards. It recently picked up nominations in four of the Golden Globes' fourteen film categories, surprising some with its nods for Best Picture (Drama), Best Supporting Actor and Actress (Patel and Kidman), and Best Original Score. There is little reason to think it couldn't get nominated in all four of those corresponding Oscar categories as well as in Adapted Screenplay (the Golden Globes combine original and adapted scripts).

Patel is outstanding. It's so rewarding that this young Brit who was still a teenager when cast as the lead of Danny Boyle's excellent 2008 Best Picture winner has grown up without the industry writing him off. Many bemoan the lack of meaningful roles for people in color of Hollywood, but almost always focus on African-Americans when doing so. Other ethnic groups, from Latinos to Asians, are also conspicuously underrepresented, typically to a much greater degree. It might have been nice for a new actor of Indian origin to be discovered, but Patel is a perfect fit for the part and he excels it at with no evidence of having begun acting as a child. The bad movies he's made (The Last Airbender, Chappie) will fade, but Lion deserves to be remembered, just like Slumdog before it. Since he is being campaigned in the Supporting Actor category, because he doesn't appear until nearly an hour in, Patel seems very likely to pick up his first Oscar nomination.

Kidman's role is relatively small, but she makes the most of it, conveying the array of sentiments that come from adoptive motherhood efficiently, evocatively, and effectively. Kidman has only picked up one Oscar nomination in the past fourteen years, but if she adds another, it's because she deserves it, not because she's overdue. She even has the one standout scene that seems to make the difference between a nomination and nothing in the supporting actor categories.

Some cynical observers may credit any recognition Lion draws to The Weinstein Company's well-known ability to court awards attention, but that's no more fair to this than it was to Philomena. And after not being able to draw a Best Picture nomination or any wins for last year's esteemed Carol, the Weinstein prowess may be overstated or somewhat faded. In any event, Lion represents a poignant dramatic achievement for Australia's Garth Davis, the film's first-time narrative director, who sees to it that the film has visual power to match its emotional power.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Collateral Beauty Moonlight Manchester by the Sea La La Land Loving Arrival Nocturnal Animals
Dev Patel: The Man Who Knew Infinity Chappie The Newsroom: The Complete First Season
Nicole Kidman: Strangerland Secret in Their Eyes Margot at the Wedding Genius The Family Fang
Philomena Woman in Gold Million Dollar Arm The Darjeeling Limited The Lunchbox

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Reviewed December 21, 2016.



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