One train ride for a male youth turns into a life-altering event, in Garth Davis’s newest Oscar bait, Lion. Adapted from the non-fiction book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley. Five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) gets lost on a train which takes him thousands of kilometers across India, away from home and family. Saroo must learn to survive alone in Kolkata, before ultimately being adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Twenty five years later, armed with only a handful of memories, Saroo’s (Dev Patel) unwavering determination, and assist from a revolutionary technology known as Google Earth, he sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home. Lion is rated PG-13 for thematic materials and some sensuality.
For my first feature film experience in Garth Davis’s career, I have to say that he not only grasps the material, but swings the artistic pendulum effortlessly throughout the emotional roller-coaster that is Lion. This is very much a director who I believe will have a promising career because he delves into the psyche and the disposition of the central character here, shooting things faithfully from their respective point of views. This is a movie that is broken up into two age groups in the life of this lost youth, one being a five year old child, and the other being a grown man in his late 20’s. What I found so appealing and so rewarding to Davis’s style is that as a child, we see things from Saroo’s height level, complete with low-to-the-ground aiming and pointing, and what this does is offer situations that are that much easier to grasp for the audience. Something this tragic and even scary needs to be seen through the eyes of a child, and the direction that Garth yields transforms us back to that age when the world was immense and uncertain. This really is as rough of a coming-of-age story as it gets because Saroo is stepping outside of his backyard alone for the first time in his life, and that fear never leaves the overall attitude of this film. The second age bracket for the movie shoots everything like movies we’re used to. This is where everything feels as steady and assuring in Saroo’s confident demeanor, and it’s refreshing to see what kind of adult he has grown into.
Kudos also goes to Luke Davies and the actual Saroo Brierley himself for writing an efficient and harrowing story through the themes of finding your own place in the world. Because this is a real life story, and because Brierley offers his side of things, we are not only able to embark on a great adventure, but also able to step into the mind of the protagonist for those authentic telling’s that only he can do. Lion had me wrapped around the many fingers of its dramatic pulse throughout this movie, and never during the two hour sit did I ever feel poor pacing or dragging. The movie always keeps moving, and that’s a credit to the traumatic experience that this quiet little boy goes through. I do wish his romantic subplot with Rooney Mara was left off of the table in favor of more exposition on some of the brief time periods of his progression in his new home that felt really skimmed over. It’s not a major problem, and the movie’s changing themes do more than enough to bridge the gap in this barely obvious negative. As a kid, Saroo’s emotional release feels very reserved and hushed, but as an adult we get to see how one event can trigger a psychological backlash to everything that this man has been holding in about his past. I loved the feeling of Saroo’s dive into the internet being used as a kind of detective style of memory, complete with a new piece of the puzzle being revealed the further his foggy past becomes clearer. The finale even offered some unexpected surprises in past events that I wasn’t expecting, reminding people first and foremost that time isn’t always forgiving. To me, the best kind of dramas are the ones that might not always go your way in ideal climaxes, but yet you still demand future watches, and that is the case with this movie, as I can’t wait to see it again.
The sound editing and mixing is also precise, especially during some of the earlier scenes that embrace the volcanic panic going through everything being ripped from Saroo’s life. Composers Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran push the tension one step at a time, slowly lifting the sound to stronger levels that elevate just as our conflict becomes obvious to the realization of Saroo. The duo compose one riveting composition here that is there every step of the way through Saroo’s tortured past, and the musical numbers while he is out on the streets alone felt haunting and dismal to the kind of outlook that we’re feeling for this adorable little boy, while the adult themes felt warm and welcoming as you’re intrigued and embracing the complexity of a man who remembers literally very little about his home.
I’m hoping that this movie garners a lot of Oscar attention, and a lot of that comes from a cast too good to be ignored. Nicole Kidman makes the most out of minimal screen time with long-winded dialogue deliveries that chilled me to the bone in the dispositions of her character. As an adoptive Mother, movies tend to always skip over their side of the story, but I’m glad that Kidman’s Sue flourishes under confined circumstances. Because of Kidman, Sue is very much a woman who is generous and appealing, while holding on to a life that never truly feels ideal to her original plans. Nicole’s trajectory for tears never disappoints, and her somber delivery reminds us that the race for Best Supporting Actress just got A lot more interesting. Dev Patel is also brilliant as the adult version of Saroo. Patel has always been in these grand scale movies, but for the first time in the young actor’s career I genuinely feel like this is a performance that he gave his all for. Patel offers a candid look into the psyche of a child-turned-adult who has been through so much, yet progresses to try to save some semblance of a life for himself in Australia. Through painful flashbacks, Patel’s watery doors to the soul open vibrantly to offer pain and happiness in one instant, an attribute very difficult to accomplish. Without question though, stealing the show is Eight-year-old Sunny Pawar in his theatrical debut. Sunny’s precision with emotional delivery is well beyond his years, and the boy wonder offers as much in guarded fear as he does in admirable innocence. Last year Jacob Tremblay was my child pick for the Oscars, and this year Pawar should lead the youth class in Academy voting.
Lion is an uplifting tale of resiliency and determination that never falters under the pressure of obvious genre cliches. Garth Davis’s close up on the importance of home and family never feels forced or corny, settling instead for worthwhile performances from every age of the acting spectrum. Not many movies make this critic tear-up, but Lion stuck its somber paws into my heart, roaring with undeterred sincerity.