Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Lion"

                                ☆☆☆½                               

How easy it is to recall the past.  It's less a sign of growing old than of being human that we can recall the way around, say, our third-grade classroom, or the route we took to get to a high-school job, even more readily than we can remember what we had for dinner yesterday.

And then there are those even more fleeting images we never imagined would get stuck in our heads but are permanently lodged there -- the view from a restaurant, a scene we saw on vacation.  We could find our way down a street we traveled once many decades ago.  The mind lives in the past as mysteriously as the heart.

The intersection of the two is where Lion takes place, in the conflicted thoughts and emotions of Saroo Brierly, who has spent most of his life safe, happy -- and lost.  In an extraordinary true story, Saroo left his tiny, poverty-ridden Indian village with his brother, Guddu, one evening in 1986, and fell asleep on a bench in a train station.  When he awoke, tiny Saroo, who was at most five years old, couldn't find his brother, and started searching a nearby train.  Unable to find Guddu, Saroo wound up 1,600 miles away from home in the overcrowded, overwhelming central station of Calcutta.

It was the beginning of an odyssey that would lead to a Dickensian orphanage and, circuitously, an affluent suburban home in Hobart, Tasmania, where an Australian couple who knew nothing of Saroo's history adopted him and raised him and another Indian boy with love and compassion.

Saroo is played as an adult by Dev Patel and as a child by the magical, captivating Sunny Pawar, who carries the weight of the film's entire first half on his tiny shoulders.  Lion gives Pawar a remarkable screen debut; how he could have been overlooked at the Oscars is a head-scratcher, especially since the film, quite rightly, is among the nominees for Best Picture and Patel has been nominated for the role he builds off of the foundation established by the little boy.

Though he is initially perplexed about how he got where he ended up, the grown Saroo spends little time contemplating his past until a conversation with friends triggers the involuntary recollection of the images he has never really forgotten.  Almost as a dare, his friends suggest he try Google Earth and some basic math to see if he can figure out where he came from.

The idea seems outlandish and even distracting at first, but soon enough Saroo can think of little else, including his parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, or his brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who has never been able to completely recover from the horrors of his own stolen childhood.

Driven by his memories, he becomes obsessed with finding his home -- and it's in these sections of the story that Lion loses just a tiny bit of its momentum as it struggles to find some conflict in his quest.  He hides his search from his adoptive parents, who otherwise seem rather astonishingly capable of providing Saroo and Mantosh exactly the sort of support and encouragement they need.  At times, Lion presents Saroo as just a bit too noble, though Patel is noteworthy for his portrayal of the haunted, lonely little boy inside the seemingly well-adjusted man.

There's also a very worthy performance by Kidman as his adopted mother, who carefully but completely destroys every theory Saroo has ever devised about why they chose to adopt the two boys.  Kidman's role may initially come across as too saintly, but she has quiet and powerful scene with Patel that helps ground the movie in an honest and non-manipulative emotion, which propels it into its final act.

As good as its latter half is, Lion is really distinguished by its bleak, painful opening hour, in which Saroo manages to survive despite breathtaking obstacles.  Director Garth Davis offers a portrayal of India is both shocking and emotionally charged; when Saroo finally gets to Tasmania, it's a relief -- and yet his Indian life is so vividly presented that Lion makes it clear what it is he misses so desperately, despite the comforts and love he finds in his adopted home.

The tug-of-war the past constantly plays with the present is what makes Lion so deeply moving, and if its ultimate destination isn't exactly surprising, it's no less affecting, particularly in the ways it finds to answer the questions that have persisted in Saroo's mind for such a long time.

Adapted by Luke Davies from Saroo's own book, A Long Way Home, Lion sustains its emotional power all the way through to its final frames and even afterward, saving a heart-wrenching revelation for the very, very end.  Lion is a beautiful movie, and though we're already almost three months into 2017 its potent enough to me want to rethink my 2016 top 10 list.  But, then, I've no idea how to choose a movie to bump -- it was a strong year for movies, and Lion is among the strongest.





Viewed February 27, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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