Hot Take: Moving from beginning to end. The true story of Saroo is extraordinary and worthy of the big screen. Sunny Pawar as young Saroo and Dev Patel as the older Saroo are both excellent.
There’s a lot to like about Lion, the true story of Saroo, a young Indian boy who was separated from his family and became lost in Calcutta. The young boy who plays the child version of Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is particularly likable. You instantly find yourself concerned for him as he gets separated from his brother and falls asleep on a train which travels 1,600km away from his home. As he wanders the streets of Calcutta, it’s hard to imagine such a terrible thing happening to a 5-year-old child.
We spend a lot of time with young Saroo. While much of the awards buzz for the film centers around Patel for his portrayal of the older Saroo, it’s really Pawar as young Saroo who steals the show. As the film progresses, Saroo is eventually rescued from the streets and placed in a home which looks like an orphanage. Eventually, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and brought to Tasmania.
The couple takes care of Saroo and things go rather smoothly until John and Sue adopt another Indian boy. Mantosh, Saroo’s now adopted brother, is a handful and causes some challenges for the couple. Meanwhile, Saroo continues to progress and adapt somewhat to life in Tasmania with his new family.
We then fast forward to the second half of the movie and join the older Saroo (Patel) as he embarks on college life. There he meets Lucy (Rooney Mara) and the pair hit it off immediately. Unfortunately, a reminder of his childhood and a conversation with friends helps Saroo realize there’s technology (Google Earth) that can help him find his childhood home.
The search develops into an obsession and his relationship with Lucy and even his adopted family deteriorates as he searches the satellite view for his home. This might be the only time in the film where the story gets a little bogged down and the romantic relationship with Lucy feels a bit manufactured (and might be the one fact of the film embellished from reading about the true story).
Like Manchester by the Sea, Lion deals a lot with loss and pain but, unlike Manchester by the Sea, it has such a spirit of hope, courage and determination that you’ll find yourself on the verge of an emotional breakdown throughout the film. When it is not sadness for the despair of Saroo’s situation and his longing to put his real family’s mind at ease to let them know he’s alive, it’s the positivity when his efforts finally pay off. If you make it to the last 20 minutes of the film without shedding a tear and develop any connection with the character, there’s almost no chance you’ll make it through the last 20 doing the same. If the first half moved you emotionally, those last 20 minutes might cause a breakdown.
There are only minor flaws present in Lion which keeps it as one of the best films of 2016 but not THE best film. However, it’s one of those films that if you told me it was your favorite of 2016, I wouldn’t argue.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Sunny Pawar
It’s a shame we don’t recognize child actors more often. Last year, it was Jacob Tremblay in Room who deserved more recognition for his performance. This year it is Pawar. His performance is inspirational and believable which has to be difficult to get from the 8-year-old who was only 6 when he portrayed 5-year-old Saroo.
While Greig Fraser’s work is not receiving the awards accolades it might be worthy of (except for winning the Camerimage Golden Frog for Best Cinematography), the film’s visuals are impressive. From the despair of Saroo’s childhood in his hometown to the streets of Calcutta to the beauty and wonder of Tasmania and Australia, the film’s visuals help set the mood throughout the film.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- The Relationship Between Saroo and Lucy
You can find plenty of times on Movie Hot Take where I’ve sung the praises of Rooney Mara. Unfortunately, she just doesn’t work in this role and it’s probably less her and more the role which seems to be crowbarred into the film and feels like one of those “based on a true story” embellishments that are completely unnecessary for dramatic effect. The film has enough already without this element.