Heartrending "Lion" Teems With Handsome, Accessible Drama

Filmmakers get just one feature length debut, one fork in the road where the routes are a career or a one-off. Australian commercial director Garth Davis doesn’t waste his. Adapted from the memoirs of Indian-born Australian Saroo Brierley, “Lion” tastefully chronicles the true story of the author’s harrowing youth and subsequent search for a childhood lost. Great performances abound, mixing with some magnificent photography to form one of the premier family dramas of 2016.

It’s 1986. 5-year-old Saroo (played incandescently for the movie’s first hour by young Sunny Pawar) lives in central India with his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), and younger sister Shekila. Once the film has established the harsh realities of the family’s daily life (Kamla is illiterate and carries rocks for a living), our protagonist begs his brother to take him on a demanding weeklong work trip. Guddu’s better judgment escapes him, and the two begin their trek to the nearest train station.

It’s late in the evening. The last train is gone. Saroo dozes off on the platform. Guddu wanders off. When Saroo wakes up, his brother has vanished, as if evaporated. The boy anxiously roams the train yard, eventually curling up in the railcar that will carry him nearly 1,000 miles from home, to Calcutta, a metropolitan area of ten million people where the vast majority speaks a different language. Without knowing his mother’s name or exactly where he’s from, he’s left to escape a few close calls with child traffickers and end up in an orphanage.

Adopted by a kindly Tasmanian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), Saroo regains much of his happy, inquisitive self. But he isn’t whole. Soon he sees this damage reflected back at him when the Brierleys adopt another troubled Indian boy, Mantosh. The Brierley family is complete. Saroo isn’t.

From here Luke Davies’ screenplay jumps forward twenty years. 25-year-old Saroo (Dev Patel) leaves his hometown of Hobart for Melbourne to attend school. Here he falls in love with a girl named Lucy (Rooney Mara) and experiences the college-aged self-discovery that so many do. But in Saroo’s case, it comes in the form of wanting, needing to find his family. And realizing that with the help of Google Earth, he finally has a chance. Even if the odds are long.

Dev Patel has come a long way as a performer since breaking out in 2009 Best Picture-winner “Slumdog Millionaire.” Tasked with anchoring the movie’s much more conventional second half, he delivers, locking in the push-pull of an unwitting double life. By adulthood, home should be a fluid concept, but Saroo is quietly at war with himself, at once repressing and locking horns with his past. Although Davies’ screenplay isn’t the star of the show (the visuals and the performances are the main reasons to check in) he understands that adult Saroo grieves as much for his family as he does for himself. And Patel channels this with ease, coming off like an entirely different actor than the lanky kid that starred in “Slumdog.”

Nicole Kidman is especially good in her limited screen time, her character grappling with demons of her own and those of her children. Both actress and character come with an uncommon sensitivity that’s indicative of the film as a whole, of the emotional balancing act that comes with adopting a child and being an adopted child.

But Saroo’s circumstances are extraordinary, and the film’s final stretch matches up. By the time we learn the meaning of the film’s title, emotional catharsis has come – and then some.

In his first movie Garth Davis has taken an unbelievable true story and made it absolutely believable, calling on an unusually compelling cast and some of the most memorable on-location shooting in recent memory to make his argument for a career in feature filmmaking. It turns out to be an open-shut case, guaranteeing both a substantial future in features and much deserved awards-season attention.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 25, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Garth Davis
Screenwriter: Luke Davies
Starring: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Rooney Mara, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and some sensuality)