Director Garth Davis/2016
Some films transcend the screen and draw the audience in to its story allowing one to fully feel the effects of the narrative as it plays out before us. The cinematography, whether it be of close shot urban terrain, or more wide-angled looks at vast topography, seeks to place us squarely in a setting where we will identify with the protagonist of our tale and understand their journey. Sounds, soundtrack, and score combined with the director’s eye for what to show, and what not to show, how much light/how little light, and more must all be working together to make this transcendence happen, but ultimately it must always come down to story. One of the best films of this year is a small, little film with a big heart, and it fires on all cylinders transcending the screen you see it on. That film is Lion.
Based on a true story, and adapted from Saroo Brierley’s book, “A Long Way Home“, Lion grabs the audience by the throat and doesn’t let go until the credits have run. Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older brother Gaduu (Abhishek Bharate) spend much of their time running around their small town in the Ganesh Tilai neighborhood of Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh in Indian, trying to find ways to bring home money for their mother who lives in poverty and works as a construction worker. One day, Gaduu sets off to leave for a town 70km away where he would sweep rail cars or do other labor. Saroo begs to go with him and when they arrive at night, Saroo collapses on a bench to sleep while Gaduu goes off to ask about a job. Saroo awakes and looks for Gaduu and thinking he is on a rail car, climbs onboard an empty car to see, before falling asleep. He awakes to find he is locked in with the train traveling for many days.
Based on a true story, and adapted from Saroo Brierley’s book, “A Long Way Home“, Lion grabs the audience by the throat and doesn’t let go until the credits have run.
Saroo ends up, unbeknownst to him, 1500km away from home in the Howrah rail station in Kolkata, India. Not only is Saroo in a strange land where he no longer knows the lay of the land, but they speak Bengali, and not his native Hindi dialect. He doesn’t know his mother’s name since he calls her “mom”, and they can’t find the name of the town he gives them. Young Saroo becomes one of the train children of Kolkata, running around the station trying to live off of the trash, and other creative ways they forge in order to survive. Eventually he finds himself in a children’s home and is adopted by John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley in Tasmania, Australia.
At this point of the story, young Saroo grows up to become a young 20’s version of himself, played by Dev Patel. This Saroo is Aussie, through and through, and is on his way to great things in the Hotel Management field. Attending a management training program in Melbourne, he meets Lucy (Rooney Mara) and begins a romance that hints at a life that would be deemed a success story by anyone, especially in contrast to his other adopted brother, Mantosh Brierley (Divian Ladwa). Saroo is haunted by the family he left behind, however, and when a new friend at the training program tells him of this new computer based program called Google Earth, he begins a search for the family he hasn’t seen in almost 25 years. This search may derail everything he has.
The emotional heart at the center of this film, drives this story and demands that you not only experience what Saroo did at each step of the journey, but that you are fully invested in it. To accomplish this, it took a special performance and that has been accomplished by both Sunny Panwar and Dev Patel. To be honest, Sunny Panwar deserves to be in the Oscar discussion, but will probably be overlooked for Patel. It is always tough for children when it comes to awards, but one cannot help but be moved by this performance. Patel is equally as strong and also deserves whatever recognition he receives at awards season.
This film might be the best film of 2016, and is a movie that demands to be seen.
This film is small, beautiful, and quiet, never seeking to embellish the details and emotions. Situations play out in a natural, organic way, and allow the weight of the situation to move the heart of those who are experiencing Saroo’s story. David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, and Rooney Mara add gravitas and depth to a story that has already won you over. In short, the cast is perfect from top to bottom.
The story has a lot of beautiful things to say about the enduring nature of the human spirit, adoption, that family doesn’t have to mean “biological” only, and the power of technology being utilized to serve higher purposes than what we often employ it for. Modern viewers who are younger might not realize vastly different the internet landscape was just 8 years ago, and how revolutionary programs like Google Earth were. For his search, Saroo must not only be able to use the program to locate possible train stations, with the specific memory of it having a water tower by it, but also an understanding of how fast trains in India travelled in the 1980’s. With a simple Google search, this is what helped him work backwards to try to find where his hometown might be.
This film might be the best film of 2016, and is a movie that demands to be seen. Sadly, it is most likely to be threatened, or overshadowed by bigger films this Christmas season. So after (and preferable before) you’ve seen Rogue One, Passengers, or any other film this season, make it your priority to find this film at possible art house cinemas, or some larger theater chains, and give it the viewing it deserves. Come award season, it will be back in theaters for those who missed it, but you don’t want to wait until then. Let Hollywood feel the roar of stories such as this by supporting its run at the theater. We can ask for stories that inspire and transcend the screen it is shown on but we have to show up when they deliver one, especially one as powerful as this film. Let this film impact the box office in a way that lets it live up to its title: Lion.