Lion is one the best movies of 2016 that very few people are talking about.Why? Maybe it’s how many theaters the film has been released. Lion deals with the loss of losing one’s self and the struggle we often feel to recapture who we once were. It’s a tale told with joyful tones splashed with elements of sorrow throughout the film.
The narrative in Lion centers around a young boy named Saroo. Saroo is born into a poor family and has to fend for himself with help from his brother Guddu. Their mother is a day laborer and doesn’t have the time to keep track of their every move. Saroo looks up to his older brother and begs for him to be allowed to tag along as he heads into Kolkata look for lost money at the train station. He agrees and off they went to one of the busiest train stations in the world. Guddu tells him to wait on the platform while he creeps around looking for money. While this is happening, Saroo dozes off and wakes up to no one on the platform. He immediately searches from train to train( looking for his brother) until he lands on one that eventually begins to move away from home, taking the boy with him. At first, the audience thinks that it might stop, but then we quickly realize that this trip will end about 900 miles down the train tracks.
Now to most this doesn’t seem that complicated of a situation. All Saroo had to do was go and talk to the train engineer and he would know how to get him home. However, Saroo didn’t speak the local language of Bengal. So now we have a young child who’s 900 miles away from home and can’t communicate his issue to anyone who passes by at the train station. Lucky for us, he’s street smart and survives by sleeping on the platform and stealing food from others. Eventually, he’s picked up by the authorities and dropped off at a local orphanage. Saroo ends being adopted by an Australian family, The Brierley’s (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). So what we have here is a real life story of lost and found.
Cinematographer Grieg Fraser enhances this narrative with his shot selection. Fraser filmed many of the earlier scenes from Saroo’s vantage point. He emphasizes the hopelessness of his situation by panning the hundreds of people who just walk by him as he wanders around dazed by his new surroundings. He utilizes tight shots of both young Saroo and some of the other children who are also homeless. My favorite shot is when Saroo finally sits down in the train station and makes eye contact with the little girl across the way. Each of them doesn’t utter a single word to each other but convey a sense of loneliness via eye contact that will leave the toughest of audiences members reaching for a kleenex.
Fraser also manages to capture the utter depravity of Saroo’s home village and his former living conditions. It’s crucial because there is such a stark contrast between where he’s from and where he grows up. Does Saroo just enjoy this new life of ease or should he abandon all of it and seek out who he truly is? This conflict is at the center of the entire film.
This movie has two remarkable performances from both Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. Patel (who you might remember from Slumdog Millionaire) plays Saroo and conveys such an inner turmoil over the events leading to his adoption. A part of him wants just to let things go and continue to live his life the way it is, but another part feels hollow/incomplete because he’s no longer connected to his true home. Saroo has to make some tough decisions (ones that I’m not sure I could do if I were in his shoes) and he knows that his choices will have an impact on his adoptive mother and father.
Nicole Kidman plays Saroo’s foster mother, Sara Brierley. Kidman portrays Brierley with such strength on screen and such compassion that in the back of mind, you feel that Saroo hit the parental lottery. About midway through the film, the audience begins to wonder why the Brierley’s haven’t had any kids sooner and towards the end of the movie, Sara drops a bombshell that will have people talking long after the film is complete. Both Patel and Kidman deliver such nuanced performances that it shouldn’t shock anyone when both of their names are announced as Oscar Nominees on January 26th.
So avoid films about assassins and singing pigs this holiday season. Lion is a scintillating tale that needs to be seen in theaters. Perhaps if we make an effort to avoid subpar films, 2017 will usher in a year of great cinema. I can’t think of a better wish for the new year.