There was probably a time back in the day when a movie like Lion would have been considered one of the top movie events of the year. It would have been built up to no end with its dramatic moments oversold and heaps of expectations placed upon it from critics and audiences who would go in expecting a revelatory piece of film and nothing less, along the lines of something like Brokeback Mountain or Precious. Thankfully, that time has since passed, and film has entered an era where a film such as Lion can avoid being spun as some grandiose awards movie and instead exist as the quietly powerful and moving experience it is.
Based on a true story, Lion opens on Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a young Indian boy who one night gets separated from his older brother on a train, leading him through one hazardous situation after another until he’s rescued by an orphanage and adopted by a loving Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Years later, a grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) is content with the life he has made for himself, which includes a promising career and a relationship with the loving Lucy (Rooney Mara). When a small instance triggers a strong memory from his childhood, Saroo begins a years-long quest to find the home he came from.
Part of Lion’s essence is a story about the importance of family and the strength of the bond that is formed, shared, and never lost. On the one side is Saroo’s natural family, whom he carries by his side throughout every part of his journey and into his adult life. Their faces and their spirits; both exist in him even into adulthood, forever imprinted into his soul. On another side is Saroo’s adoptive family, which includes Sue (Kidman), John (Wenham), and brother Montosh (Divian Ladwa), another orphaned boy from India who is adopted a year after him. The bond between the family is shaky at times thanks to Montosh’s traumatic childhood before being adopted, which has led to a problematic upbringing despite Sue and John’s best efforts. Though they come from different worlds, Saroo’s bond with his adopted family is undeniably strong, particularly with Sue. Although she isn’t Saroo’s birth mother, she understands and supports his need to find the woman who gave him life. “She needs to see how beautiful you are,” she tells Saroo at one point, knowing very strongly that both she and this stranger she’s never met feel the same kind of love for him.
Lion also functions as a searing story of identity and culture. As someone who was born Indian but raised Australian, Saroo’s culture is firmly rooted in the latter, solely because that is the only world he has known for the majority of his life. While he hasn’t completely forgotten where he’s come from, he cannot identify as Indian as much as he would like, leading to one of the main reasons he embarks on this journey. Lion does a fantastic job of showing Saroo’s intense determination to find the answers he’s looking for, so much so that he eventually reaches a maddening level in which he shuts himself off from his present world which loves him. As much as the journey is about family and identity, it’s ultimately closure that Saroo wishes for more than anything, as well as the peace he feels it will bring him.
Cinema is littered with examples (both good and bad) of having two actors inhabit the same character. Thankfully, Lion falls into the former. Pawar is such a bright and instinctive young actor, nailing his character’s fears to the point that the film simply would not have been as powerful without him. Meanwhile, Patel has never been given a better chance to showcase his skills. Here, the actor beautifully conveys Saroo’s longing for answers, and the way he lets his quest overtake him to the point of obsession shows Patel at his most impressive.
Lion is aided greatly by the likes of Wenham (in a role which allows him to be the most grounded he’s ever been), Ladwa, whose damaged Montosh is positively heartbreaking, and Mara, who just oozes a warmth and radiance playing a young woman of devotion, whose understanding can only go so far. Of the supporting players, it’s Kidman who is the real standout. The way she encompasses motherhood through a woman endlessly struggling to hold her family together is one of the highest points in an already remarkable career.
Nothing makes a person weep more than true life does. One needs only look to the real world to discover the most beautiful, poetic, and cathartic stories that could ever be told. Lion certainly exists as a testament to this. The film’s many definitions of family, as well as its themes of culture, identity, and love in its purest form, offer more heart and soul than most other such offerings do. Despite this, Lion’s attendance this awards season has been curiously sporadic, popping up on only a handful of end-of-year lists and critics’ groups awards. Maybe back in the day, enough of a push would have been given to ensure the film was a stalwart the entire season; but then in a way, such a move would have suffocated Lion instead of letting it breathe in the incredibly stunning way that it does.