Oscars 2017: Lion is a lost and found story that pulls on your heart strings

Lion (2016) Movie Review
Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate

Somebody give Dev Patel an award for his hair. It’s amazo!

But seriously, Patel has a natural likability that translates very well to playing Saroo, an adopted Australian man who’s searching for his biological family in India after being lost as a five year old. Sunny Pawar, a naturally talented child actor playing the young Saroo, is also top notch. The double punch performances is a solid foundation for Lion, an inspiring story based on real life events. 

Lion is designed to pull on the heart strings. The first half of Lion provides a balance between focused story telling and giving enough breathing room so that a lost five year old boy’s harrowing tale can resonate. It’s a survival story, running a bit long, that reflects on people’s generosity as well as the bad intent that some may harbor. 

A lot of “based on a true story” films contain an element that is beyond belief, something that fiction can’t make up which makes it compelling.  Essentially, Saroo has to find a needle in a haystack to track down his family using 25 year old memory fragments and Google Earth.  The exact logistics could have been fleshed out better; however, Lion’s script makes a stronger decision to focus on the character’s emotional journey.

What’s really at stake, even more than Saroo wanting to give his family the peace of mind that he’s alive and well, is the need to reclaim a lost part of himself. Immigrants may integrate or assimilate into their new culture, but a person cannot divorce one’s self completely without experiencing some inner conflict.  

“What city was I born in? Is my mother alive or dead? Who am I, to others and to myself?” The journey back to India is about Saroo reconciling his personal identity, to make himself whole, and the adapted screenplay conveys those ideas thoughtfully. The ending put a small lump in my throat, but apparently I have a cold, cold heart (lol) and it didn’t emotionally affect me as much as other teary-eyed viewers. 

Lion makes the most of brief screen time in depicting Saroo’s family. I instantly liked Saroo’s relationship with his older biological brother. In Australia, Saroo’s adoptive family’s internal struggles shows that their kindness and generosity is not without some personal costs.  The adoptive mom played by Nicole Kidman is given a strong humanizing moment, albeit her perspective plays only a minor role. Likewise, Rooney Mara doesn’t get a whole lot to do other than be a supportive girlfriend. These side elements don’t necessarily pay off or detract in big ways, but helps to round out the central narrative.

An above average “based on a true story” film, Lion explores personal identity and family reunification. The emotional integrity of the story is maintained throughout, mostly a feel good message about hope and perseverance. The strong dual performances in the main role are absorbing. If there’s a reasonable critique, Lion is a bit long in the tooth and could have shaved off some longer, non-essential scenes to move things along quicker.

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