Sunday, December 25, 2016


Only two films in 2016 offered a profound emotional reaction that forced me to tears. The first was a sobering documentary of an athlete struggling with the onset of an incurable and debilitating disease. Like Gleason, Lion has its basis in fact as director Garth Davis' film dramatizes the truth story of Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel) and his long journey to find home.

Offering us two films for the price of one, Davis expertly balances two threads set in different locales with completely different casts. This is no easy task, yet the film weaves both together into a compelling narrative about a sense of self, home, and place in the world.

Starting in the country outside of Calcutta, we meet a young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). Separated in the city from Guddu, Sarro narrowly escapes a terrible fate on the streets. Even with the help of authorities, the five-year-old can't find his way back home and is eventually adopted by an Australian couple (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) to be raised thousands of miles from his home.

Picking up years later, Saroo discovers the invention of Google Earth and begins a long-delayed search for his birthplace by studiously studying the landscape based on his few remaining childhood memories. As the search adversely effects his relationships with friends, work, his parents, and his girlfriend (Rooney Mara), Saroo becomes obsessed with the possibility of finding not only his missing family but the sense of himself he lost decades before.

Patel leads a stellar cast as the increasingly obsessed Saroo whose often self-destructive journey can not be halted. Mara has had splashier and more distinctive roles, but I don't know that I've ever loved her more as the compassionate but concerned girlfriend. Kidman and Wenham are well-cast at the Australian parents, and one of the script's strengths is not to pit Saroo's birth parents against his adoptive ones. Saroo isn't looking to replace the loving couple who raised him, but instead find the start to his story, reconnect with a family lost, and come to a better understanding of who he is in the world.

Easily one of the best films of 2016, Lion is a terrific story that turns out to make a pretty damn fine film focused on how strongly our sense of identity and self is formed at childhood. Saroo's tale is filled with complex characters, emotions, and themes without easy answers. Here it really is the journey, the struggle, that makes life worth living. Is the storyline streamlined in a couple spots for dramatic effect? Possibly, but that's a minor quibble for an otherwise terrific film.

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