LION is one of those movies I never heard anybody talk about, but the Weinstein Company somehow got it a best picture nomination. That’s okay – it’s a well made movie and a powerful story, the kind of thing you go to this time of year and you cry and you’re uplifted and in this case I feel no shame about it. It’s based on the memoir of Saroo Brierley, who when he was a dirt poor peasant kid in India got very lost and never found his way back for 25 years.
Sunny Pawar as 5-year-old Saroo is one of those situations like past best picture nominees ROOM or BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD where a director (Australian TV guy making his feature debut Garth Davis) gets an almost supernaturally good performance out of a tiny little kid. Raised by a single mother (Priyanka Bose, JOHNNY GADDAAR) whose job is moving rocks, Saroo and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) go out in the day and find ways to scrounge up a little something, like they hop a train to steal coal to sell to buy two little baggies of milk.
The disaster comes when Guddu leaves Saroo at a train station while he goes to do something he says is only for bigger kids. Saroo falls asleep and is scared when he wakes up and his brother’s still not back. Looking for him he slips onto a train which, to his terror, starts moving before he can get off. It’s an empty train so he ends up trapped and traveling for days, finally getting off somewhere where they don’t speak Bengali. The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming. He’s in this terrible situation and he can’t even tell anyone. They just think he’s an annoying kid blocking them from the ticket window. They push him out of the way.
He ends up a street kid. A mob of little children covered in dirt, sleeping on cardboard, eerily resigned to this miserable life. They get chased by adults – not cops, I don’t think. Something worse.
When Saroo finds someone who speaks his language, a young single woman with an apartment, the relief is short-lived. She seems so nice and gives him small, comforting luxuries like soda, but then she brings in some sunglasses-wearing douche who sizes him up for… I mean, it is not specified, but we can guess. I’m disappointed in you, lady. I thought you were cool.
(I would like to think this part is outlandish. Considering how little Saroo remembers as an adult, there’s no way if this really happened that he’d be sure what they were up to. But I don’t know how common that sort of thing is in India.)
When, after considerably more horror, he ends up flown to Australia to live with a nice couple (Nicole Kidman [BATMAN FOREVER] and David Wenham [VAN HELSING]), it feels less like a rescue than one more punch in the gut. These Australians are downright heroic, but on the orphanage side it seems fishy. It’s unclear how hard they really tried to find his mother. And it doesn’t seem like living in a big, nice house is any consolation for Saroo as he gives up hope of going home. He looks like he’s been transported to a scary alien planet.
Like fellow best picture nominee MOONLIGHT, this has a trailer implying a flashback structure when really it’s more pleasingly simple than that. It’s just the story of getting lost as a child and then it skips to him in college (now played by Dev Patel, CHAPPIE) as a fully integrated Australian. But a dinner party with other Indian immigrants – and especially memories triggered by Indian food – reawaken his need to track down his mother and brother. That means years of obsessively studying India’s train stations on Google Maps, comparing them to his vague childhood memories, mis-remembered names of places and calculations of distance from where he knows he ended up.
Rooney Mara (URBAN LEGENDS 3: BLOODY MARY) plays his girlfriend who first encourages him on his quest and then starts to get tired of him being a twitchy beardo staring at computers all day like he’s trying to solve the Zodiac killings or something. It’s not the greatest role but Mara and her big intense eyes make easy work of it. Kidman’s role is not much bigger but has a little more meat to it. I can’t remember if I’ve seen her as a loving mother before, but if so it wasn’t with a regular person perm.
I’m surprised Patel got a best supporting actor nomination. The harrowing part of the movie is when Saroo is a kid, that’s what made the biggest impression on me. But he does well and I suppose I haven’t seen him in this type of a dramatic role before.
It’s a story that manages to pay respect to the importance of both our origins and the unpredictable places we end up. Saroo needs to find his mother, but doesn’t want to hurt the woman who actually raised him. His rediscovery of his roots doesn’t erase his Australian-ness.
So it’s very emotional. Doesn’t matter if it’s a simple-and-obvious emotional. There are layers to it, but it comes down to that he has this one goal to achieve. So you know where it’s going and can imagine the big emotional payoff it’s leading up to – most snot I’ve heard in a theater in years. (EMOTIONS SPOILER) I thought I was safely past the crying part and then before the credits they show us real footage of the real mothers meeting each other for the first time and hugging and crying. Jesus christ, cut me some slack, Oscar contenders! What about some bloopers or something.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.