It is interesting that I saw “Lion” only a week after having seen “Hidden Figures,” which are similar in many ways. Both are based on true events, they are ultimately uplifting stories but are both also quite manipulative in how they get you to feel for these characters.
With that said, “Lion”‘s execution is far more subtle and effective than “Hidden Figures” was. The latter was always in your face about its message and characters, as it should have been for the time period. But “Lion” creeps up on you, unsuspectingly, through calm and quiet performances from Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, and works its way into your heart without even trying.
Set in the India in the 1980s, young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) wants to help his older brother Guddu at his job and make money for their family. The two leave by train, but Saroo cannot stay awake and ends up falling asleep on a different train that he gets stuck on for two days. Saroo ends up on the other side of India where everyone speaks a different language, lost, and unable to find his way back home.
Saroo is eventually adopted by an Australian couple (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) and is raised in a loving and caring atmosphere. But twenty years later, when Saroo (Dev Patel) goes off to college he is told of this revolutionary new piece of technology that could help him find his home and family – Google Earth.
The first half of “Lion” follows a young Saroo throughout a shabby, filthy, and infested Calcutta and it paints quite a picture of India without saying much about it. There are hundreds of homeless children running in the streets and at night they are hunted down and carried off to a prison-like area where they can receive an “education” from adults who would rather be anywhere else. Food is scarce and kindness is a rarity.
All this plays into Dev Patel’s role as an older Saroo, who has spent the last twenty years living in comfort with anything he wanted at his fingertips, but realizes that his family is still stuck in that terrible place and have spent everyday wondering what happened to him. Patel says little throughout the film, but his grief and anger speak through his constant need to find his family.
Additionally, Nicole Kidman has some wonderful scenes as Saroo’s adopted mother. She admits to her son early on that she will always be there, listening to what he has to say without forcing it out of him. She seems to understand the emotional baggage that comes with adopting a lost child and wanted nothing more than show him that the world is not as bad as he thought it was.
Both Patel and Kidman give reversed and quiet performances, letting their pauses filled with concern say more than their words.
While “Lion” can be manipulative at times, these performances and the two vastly different worlds that are built make the whole journey worth the sometimes forced emotional moments. The film avoids the typical genre cliches of finding lost loved ones through its quiet anger. The pacing might seem slow to some but I felt it moved well in building up how terrible living in India can be. Overall, “Lion” just might be the best uplifting movie of the year.
Final Grade: A-