52nd Chicago International Film Festival Special Presentation
In a tonal shift from the trumpeted and showy norm of Oscar bait, the awards race of late 2016 is shaping up to be the Battle Royale of Understatement. Following the restrained paths of “Moonlight,” “Loving,” “Manchester by the Sea,” and even “Arrival” to some degree, “Lion” is yet another performance-driven dramatic film entering this holiday season favoring prudence over theatrics. The feature film debut of award-winning commercial director Garth Davis, is a love letter instead of a power ballad that delivers genuine emotional heft all on its own, without the need to manufacture it for the sake of a movie.
“Lion” tells the story of Saroo, a young boy who begins his life in the squalid rural outskirts of Khandwa in the Madhya Pradesh state of central India. At the tender age of five, the innocent and industrious Saroo (newcomer Sunny Pawar) and his pre-teen big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) scrounge for food and resources each day to bring home to their laborer mother (Priyanka Bose) and baby sister. One morning, the brothers are separated at a train platform when Saroo falls asleep stashing aboard a passenger train after waiting overnight for his brother to return.
Locked in the train for several days, the route terminates in the metropolis of Calcutta, roughly 1500 kilometers away from his home. Lost, alone, penniless, and illiterate in a huge city, Saroo is forced to fend for himself on the streets and alleys. Several months later, he is collected and tagged as a missing person and sent to a group orphanage with hundreds of other unclaimed children. His appealing demeanor gets him pulled aside for tutoring and English language instruction in preparation for adoption to John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) of Tasmania, Australia. Saroo is soon joined by a new brother, Mantosh, a more mentally troubled adopted boy for the Brierleys.
Fast-forward 20 years, the grown Saroo (Dev Patel) is a stable and cultured young man beginning college in Melbourne. Smitten by his benevolent and dimpled girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), he interrupts his happiness when more and more fractured memories of his pre-adoption youth are triggered. Using Google Earth as his means of research to, mile by mile, trace train lines out of Calcutta, Saroo becomes distant and obsessively conducts painstaking research to find his Indian origins, in a film based on a true story.
Not single shred of engagement exists in “Lion” without the captivating performances of the two actors playing Saroo. In his first movie role and on the list among the best youth performances of the year, little Sunny Pawar embodies powerful imagery in his solitary scenes and matches his co-stars. Dev Patel takes the baton to lead the second half of the film with his most mature and fully-formed performance to date. Both can melt your heart with a mere gaze into their eyes and the brightness of their prompted and unprompted smiles. The two build remarkable, soulful empathy for the Saroo character.
With the Saroo focus filling the entirety of a two-hour film, there are avenues of unexplored or incomplete periphery in Davis’s film. Kidman conveys notable parental layers in her few excellent scenes, easily overshadowing Wenham and the hinted dichotomy of Mantosh’s counterexample of adoption failure. The untapped talent of Rooney Mara’s love interest ends with pensive waiting and embraces of reassurance.
Those narrative flaws and minor touches of dramatic license from the real subject’s true story aside, “Lion” wholly succeeds as a poignant and inspirational journey primed for wider audiences, winning no less than eight audience awards from film festivals this year, including shared Audience Award honors with “Moonlight” locally at the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival. From Greig Fraser’s widescreen cinematography to the score samplings of Dustin O’Halloran featuring German piano virtuoso Hauschka, every artistic aspect preaches soft subtlety and the genteel. A Hollywood film would blow a story like Saroo’s far out of proportion with grandiose swells of big orchestras and riotous fake cheers. With heartfelt pleasure, you won’t found an ounce of that fluff here in Davis’s creative choices. This one's a keeper.
LESSON #1: GOOGLE EARTH IS AMAZING-- Any newfangled school teacher out there will attest to this lesson. Google Earth is more than just an online globe. Layers of virtual mapping, curated images, factual references, and other bottomless pits of searchable information are linked for nearly any coordinates on the planet. The essential application is literally “the world at your fingertips.”
LESSON #2: EDUCATE YOURSELF ON CHILD ORPHAN STATISTICS-- “Lion” will inspire you to look up unfathomable facts and figures. Saroo Brierley was but one lucky needle in a haystack made of as many as 20 million orphaned children in India, approximately 4% of its total population. On average annually, less than 5,000 of those 20 million ever get adopted. Let that sink in.
LESSON #3: THE DRAW OF ONE’S CHILDHOOD HOME-- Saroo may have adapted and made a life for himself in Tasmania and Australia, but his childhood memories and unanswered questions were unshakeable. He still remembers streets, faces, and landscapes. Saroo was drawn to find out if his mother and brother were still alive and still looking for him. He admirably and exhaustively pushed himself towards that draw to discover those answers.
LESSON #4: ORPHANS HAVE PREVIOUS LIVES-- Adoptive parents take on the care and guardianship of children not of their own in hopes of imbuing them into their homes and family histories. They might change their names along with their destinies. The tricky thing is many children, especially older adoptees, carry memories, stories, emotions, connections, and their own histories which were likely severed in traumatic fashion. That can be a hard slate to wipe clean.