My Rating: 8 out of 10
When Lion was nominated as one of this year’s best pictures for the Academy Awards, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised. In fact, one of the reasons that me and my girlfriend were interested in seeing it in the first place was that it seemed to be a strong contender for awards season. The film earned all of its six nominations and I would be extremely surprised if it didn’t win at least one award. The story was uplifting and harrowing, the acting was incredible all around (especially Sunny Pawar who played Saroo as a young boy), and the film itself was cinematographically beautiful.
While I had heard of the story of Saroo Brierly before seeing Lion, I didn’t make the connection until after I left the theatre and did a little research into the actual story behind the film. Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar) was a young Indian boy who lives in a tiny village and is separated from his older brother one night at a train station far from home. While searching for his brother, he finds his way onto a train traveling in the opposite direction of his village and becomes completely lost. He struggles on his own until he is taken in by an orphanage and eventually adopted by a kind Australian couple, John and Sue Brierly (played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman respectively). Twenty years later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) discovers Google Earth and begins a long search for his family back in Indian using images from his memory as a guide.
Lion is nearly perfect in its realism. The first third of the movie, in which Sunny Pawar portrays the young Saroo, are so deeply emotional and realistic. It doesn’t feel like you are watching a movie during those scenes, but that you are stepping into the shoes of this little boy who’s entire world has been turned upside down. Had we not known going in that Saroo would eventually end up in Australia, this section of the movie would illicit the same level of tension as the escape scene in Room. Even so, all the scenes from Saroo’s childhood after he is separated from his brother are either terrifying or heartbreaking. Not only were the writing and pacing done in an expertly manner, but Sunny’s performance was phenomenal. It is always difficult for me to wrap my head around the ability that some young actors have to portray characters just as vividly as seasoned professionals.
During the second act, the filmmakers seemed to have a little trouble maintaining the strength of the first act while condensing the length of Saroo’s search for his family. This is understandable since the audience needs to understand the difficulty he had with his search and the toll it took on him. This made it necessary to explore the relationships Saroo had with his adoptive family, including his troubled adopted brother Mantosh (played by Divian Ladwa), as well as his supportive girlfriend, Lucy (played by Rooney Mara). Only once the audience understood the relationships Saroo had with the people around him could we really appreciate the tension that his search brought to his life. With all this information to pack into the middle of a movie, it is understandable that the second act was not as powerful as the first, which would be extremely difficult for any filmmaker to follow up.
While the third act is short, it definitely brings the film back to its original level of emotion, except on the opposite side of the spectrum. If the audience had any knowledge of Saroo’s story, the movie could have been extremely predictable if presented in a different way. But the filmmakers prevented that outcomes by creating a film that was as honest and genuine as possible. They do not turn away from difficult subjects, such as the terrible things that happen to the millions of Indian children that go missing every year and the psychological damage these things cause. However, there is never any gratuitous shown on screen. Awful truths are openly hinted at, but left largely unseen. In this way, the film portrays the reality of the situation in a tasteful way. Adoption is also handled beautifully. The film drives home the fact that adoption isn’t just for families who can’t have their own children and reminds us that Saroo didn’t want to find his Indian family because he was unhappy with his Australian one. Nicole Kidman’s speech on this towards the end of the film was one of the most powerful parts of Lion and could easily win her an Academy Award.
Finally, I wanted to mention the gorgeous cinematography. When the movie began, I wondered why there was a long sequence of location shots while the opening credits appeared on screen. At first, I thought the opening was an artistic way of introducing us to the location in Indian where the film would take place. Instead, these shots connected back to the story as many of them were locations that Saroo looked at during his search on Google Earth. The filmmakers did a wonderful job of capturing all the Indian locations in a way that made them vivid and memorable, and sometimes dreamlike. This allowed the audience to understand how Saroo pictured them during those twenty years after leaving India.
If possible, you should try to see Lion, especially since it is now nominated for six Academy Awards. While the film is heart-wrenching, it is also beautiful. The story is genuine and the acting is phenomenal. Sunny Pawar is the Jacob Tremblay of 2016. Lion shows the strength of determination, while also giving us a glimpse into a part of the world that many Americans are unfamiliar with.