Sunday, January 8, 2017

Films of 2016: "Lion"


The structure of film, particularly those based on true stories, can go one of two ways. The first way would be an obvious route, where the main character (in the present) shares his story in flashback. The second way would be to tell the characters story from past to present. The film Lion (based on the book "A Long Way Back" by Saroo Brierley) falls into this latter category.

It's an extraordinary true story of an Indian boy who goes missing, is adopted into an Australian family, and, as a young adult, searches for his family via Google Earth. Sounds like a ridiculous premise. (Well, so did the premise for Slumdog Millionaire initially.)

Abhishek Bharate (Guddu) and Sunny Pawar (young Saroo)
The first half of the film focuses on young Saroo as a child, in a slum in India with his brother Guddu and mother Kamla. Waiting for his brother at a train station one night, Saroo gets lost and soon winds up on another train and falls asleep, only to wake up the next morning miles and miles from home. This segment of the film chronicles Saroo as he goes from city to city (including Calcutta), from one shelter to the next, on the streets, to an orphanage, and finally to a new home in Tasmania with adoptive parents (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman).

The second half shows Saroo as an adult (Dev Patel), going to school for hotel management. He starts to remember things from his past, and learns from friends and colleagues about a new online service called "Google Earth," which allows anyone to track various locations on earth using a "search radius," including previous railway stations and villages. With on-and-off support from his worried girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), Saroo gets to the point of obsession over looking for his biological family, and even, at times, grows apart from the family that took him in, as well as the rebellious adopted brother he'd grown angst-ridden towards ("Where are you," they ask. "What home are you talking about? Where you're in one room and I'm in another?").

Dev Patel and Rooney Mara
Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar
This choice of the aforementioned structure works because it eliminates any conventions or cliches that are often associated with films that are "based on true stories" and it allows the audience to grow with the main character(s) rather than meet him later on and learn about his (their) past. The film also features two of the year's best performances. Patel transforms himself physically and emotionally as the adult Saroo, and as a lost and determined individual. Kidman adds great depth and raw emotion as Saroo's adoptive mother Sue, as a woman who has chosen to help those who are suffering.

The film is heartbreaking and hard to watch at times, considering the real Saroo Brierley was away from home for twenty-five years. "What if you do find home and they're never there," asks Lucy at a crucial moment. "I don't have a choice," Saroo responds, with determination. "They need to know I'm okay." Even Sue agrees, "I really hope your mother's there. She needs to see how beautiful you are." And with that determination, the film does have hope and inspiration in its message of family and caring for those that are lost or broken.

Dev Patel and Saroo Brierley

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