My wife and I first heard of Lion when we attended last fall’s Heartland Film Festival preview night here in Indianapolis. I’m sorry we missed its festival screening, but now that it’s been nominated for Best Picture, once again the film and I crossed paths as part of my annual Oscar quest.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Based on a true story, Lion follows the mid-1980s tale of li’l Saroo (li’l Sunny Pawar, now front and center in its shameless Oscar campaign), an East Indian tyke with a mom and two siblings, and meager income selling whatever coal he and his brother Guddu can steal from moving freight trains. One fateful night, Saroo gets separated from his brother at a railway station and finds himself spirited 1600 miles from home with only a kiddo’s grasp of his identifying information and not much else to go on. Very mild orphanage discomfort ensues.
Blessings shine upon Saroo in the form of adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David “Faramir” Wenham) who give him a wonderful new home in Australia. Fast-forward twenty years later and he’s grown into an Aussie-accented Dev Patel, whom we shall remember always for Danny Boyle’s gritty/energizing Slumdog Millionaire and not for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. Adult Saroo loves the family that raised him but can’t deny his heart longs to know whatever happened to the birth family he accidentally left behind. His chances of finding them rest on his fading childhood memories and a groundbreaking new invention: Google Earth! Can Our Hero type, search, and refresh his way to a family reunion?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Most of the remaining cast is unrecognizable to us uncultured Americans, except Academy Award Nominee Rooney Mara figuring prominently into Saroo’s adult years as the Concerned Girlfriend.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Lessons learned from Lion:
* Never let your kids run around alone in the middle of the night unsupervised.
* Teach your kids their names and full addresses as soon as they’re able to learn words, if not sooner.
* Keep communication lines open with your adopted child as they get older and resourceful enough to consider questing for their birth parents.
* Sometimes the internet can be useful in pretty awesome ways.
Some adoptions fare more smoothly than others. Fortunately for Faramir and Chase Meridian, Saroo is a well-behaved child who learns quickly and grows up an accomplished best-case scenario. His later adopted brother…uhhhhhh, well, they love him too. Some extend that love more consistently than others.
We also see Saroo’s long-term transition from his origins to his upbringing. As time goes by he forgets how to speak Hindi, can’t remember his favorite childhood snack without a tactile prompt, learns how to play cricket, and favors Australian soccer teams over their Indian rivals. When he meets lifelong Indians in college and beyond, the differences are awkward at times.
Nitpicking? Some viewers may be disturbed by one scene in which li’l Saroo comes thiiiis close to getting suckered by implied child traffickers. Fortunately his innate child-trafficking-sense kicks in and saves the day and the PG-13 rating.
Saroo’s memory seems utterly amazing at times, but that’s just the movie sticking to reality. Director Garth Davis oversees vast Indian panoramas and grungy city streets in the first half, but works a little too hard at manufacturing some slight personal drama in the second half, which I suppose is preferable to giving us just an hour of Patel sitting at his laptop clicking and scrolling and cursing his underperforming graphics card. Anyone who hates tearjerkers may also experience dismay while Patel basically spends the last fifteen minutes a weeping mess. Or that might be some audiences.
So what’s to like? I’ve only seen six of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees so far (annoyingly behind schedule), but this is the only one so far to serve up an old-fashioned, unabashed, undiluted feel-good ending. The India of Lion is more sanitized than the one Slumdog struggled to transcend, so the risk-to-reward ratio seems lower, but it’s hard to fault its celebration of the joys of adoption and the giddy delight of overdue family reunions. Nicole Kidman gets a nice speech near the end as the Noble Adoptive Mother, and li’l Sunny Pawar is an acting prodigy — sometimes cute, sometimes horrified — worth checking out despite the Weinstein Company’s For Your Oscar Consideration trade ads exploiting his adorable face more than any of his onscreen nemeses did.
How about those end credits? In an extremely rare move, the film’s official website is plugged at the beginning of the end credits, even before the main cast. Beyond the trailer, the site features a series of links for investigating and donating to assorted charities involved in adoption, exploited children, and other topics of utmost seriousness and varying relevance to the subject at hand.
The end credits also reveal another connection to Slumdog Millionaire: Academy Award-winning composer A. R. Rahman, who performs a track called “Urvashi Urvashi“.
For what it’s worth, I saw no evidence in the end credits that the usage of Google Earth was intentional product placement. Corporate product or no, it was an integral tool in the true story.
And to answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a brief scene after the Lion end credits, only a few seconds long and technically a spoiler of actual history. For a few seconds we return to that time Saroo and his big brother rode atop a train through a dark, dangerous bridge, this time with a parting message overlaid across the screen: “In Memory of Guddu.”