Over the next few months, we’ll be hearing the term “Oscar bait” a lot. Used as a pejorative for period dramas, biopics or anything that looks like old-fashioned storytelling, it can be both a blessing and a curse for late year releases. One such film already labeled with that tag is Garth Davis‘ “Lion”, a heart-stirring adaptation based on an extraordinary true story. Indeed, this is a prestige film through and through. And it deserves all the awards attention it will likely get.
The unbelievable emotional and geographical journey of “Lion” begins in rural India. In a village so rural it’s practically off the map, young Saroo lives with his older brother, younger sister and their mother. Taking one day at a time as they try to make ends meet, the boys hustle in the street to help their mother, who labors as a rock collector to support the family. It’s a hardscrabble existence, but their love for each other keeps them going. One fateful day however, Saroo is separated from his brother at the nearby train station, and he ends up being accidentally carried away thousands of miles to Calcutta. Now having to survive on the rough city streets, Saroo eventually ends up in an orphanage. But hope for a family reunion seems nearly impossible, as he doesn’t speak the local language and nobody seems to know where he comes from. Saroo is therefore forced to move on, getting a new life when an Australian couple adopts him. But 25 years later, he still misses his family, prompting a seemingly impossible search with the aid of new Google Earth technology.
And indeed, Davis also uses the Google Earth concept to great effect, treating the audience to wonderful overhead imagery from the opening scene. It’s a good indicator of what’s to come, as Greig Fraser’s awe-inspiring cinematography captures the vast scope of Saroo’s adventure with incredible detail. Creating an immersive experience, he takes us from the skies and zooms in to the nooks and crannies of India alongside our pint-sized hero.
Indeed, a surprisingly large portion of the narrative takes place in India. Accentuated by Davis’ gentle directing touch, Fraser’s observant eye forces us to take in the sights and sounds of the place that Saroo will forever call home. We can practically smell Saroo’s coveted jalebis (an Indian dessert) frying, while the camera also lingers on the sad faces of the many street children left to fend for themselves.
By the time the film transitions from 5-year Saroo (a phenomenal Sunny Pawar) to the later years in Australia, the film has already grabbed you by the heartstrings. And it gets even more touching from there, as memories of home constantly invade his dreams day and night. Indeed, Davis ensues the film’s heart is in the right place, maintaining the focus on India.
The importance of that focus is immediately evident as the script wrestles with the idea of “home”. Especially as we meet his loving girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) and adopted mother Sue (Nicole Kidman), we see that all their warmth and support is still unable ease the pain (i.e. there’s no “white savior” problem here). And in his most accomplished performance to date, Dev Patel perfectly captures the melancholy and longing deep inside Saroo.
Indeed, by the end of the film, there’s no denying that home is where the heart is. For Saroo and this deeply moving script, that place is with his mother and siblings in that little village in the city of Khandwa. And through this beautiful film, our heart aches for it with him.
Admittedly, the film does suffer from a sense of predictability to its final destination. And the ending feels slightly rushed considering the extensive world-building already established. But ultimately, “Lion” is a triumphant celebration of the beauty of the human spirit. If you want to reduce that to mere “Oscar bait”, go ahead. But I’m sure many will find it worthy of its potential nods for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman).
“Lion” opens in select theaters November 25, 2016.