Lion full movie review - One of the best of the year. A true tearjerker
The holiday movie season continues to dazzle with LION, one of the most emotionally rendering movies I can remember.
A story based on a real event that follows a lost boy reuniting with his mother, this is a film that exists purely on merit and a powerful combination of imagery and sound. It's like a Hollywood movie that's so unbelievable you can't believe could happen. It's magic.
There are two distinct parts to the film, a front-half that follows our hero through the slums of western India. There is very little dialogue and the language we do hear is local dialect. Saroo (Dev Patel playing as the adult and the wonderful Sunny Pawar playing the child) lives in a small shack with his mother, brother, and younger sister. They work as laborers, lifting rocks and earning little to survive. At night Saroo volunteers to help his brother Guddu in earning more money. With little sleep and a crowded train station to navigate, Saroo is soon lost. The boy is stuck on a train for days, trapped with no idea where he is going or where his brother is. Once he manages to escape, he wanders the streets of Calcutta calling for his mom in a language that locals can't even comprehend. His story moves slowly, tragically, and we follow this small child disappear amongst a mass of crowds and commuters.
It's a wonder he manages to escape, but fortune would find Saroo in an orphanage in the heart of the city. His story makes the local news, but with the memory of an 8 year old and little recollection of his town's name (he doesn't even know his mother's real name), he is doomed to exist as a lost boy nearly 1,000 miles separated from his home. Fortune would find him adopted by two Australians (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) who fly Saroo to Tasmania and raise him with love. They adopt another boy from the same orphanage a year later, and immediately we see the mental disturbances that could be inflicted on these innocent children. How Saroo managed to grow up so normal is a wonder in itself.
The last half of the movie follows adult Saroo (Dev Patel in a showy role that is at times a bit too flat but never fails to impress) as he slowly realizes these memories of his childhood. He meets a girl (Rooney Mara) while attending college who encourages him to try and trace down his mother using Google Earth and the few visual cues he recalls. Simple math puts his search area within 1,500 kilometers of Calcutta. Painstakingly, he searches the grainly online images of train station after train station.
Here is where the movie develops into a more complex story, where Sue (Nicole Kidman in a heartbreaking role) admits her wishes to adopt, and how she has no regrets about never having children of her own. There is a scene spoken almost entirely in whispers where Sue tells Saroo all that she believes and hopes for her son. Saroo, in turn, finds new insight into this woman and the beautiful sacrifices his parents made for him. Saroo keeps his search hidden from his parents, fearful of what they may think and worried that it will all amount to nothing. As unbelievable a story as this is, we can identify with these worries and what it means to have guardians in our lives.
I will admit that this movie packs a punch, and the last 45 minutes are filled with incredibly-written scenes one after the other. Saroo on the verge of giving up hope stumbles onto a familiar sight: a water tower near the train station he first disappeared. We know it's the same tower too, with winding stairs and a distinctive roof. He can retrace his steps down the rails, through the trees, and back to his village... Zooming in on a pixelated brown spot, at last he has found it: his home. This scene alone is so powerful with only the fuzzy Google images, a tight closeup on Patel's eyes, and the music. The film score by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran deserves much praise through melancholy sounds created on the piano, unique themes and a perfect marriage to the story at hand.
It shouldn't be a spoiler to learn that Saroo an his mother reunite in one of the most beautiful scenes one can imagine, an embrace that is earned so fully that I doubt there was a single dry-eye in the packed theater I saw it. Stuck with no tissue I was caught with tears streaming down my face in a scene of pure electricity. I tremble with the memories of this moment, amazed by the story and more so by the accomplishments of these filmmakers to achieve something so wonderful and heartwarming. I wept at the end titles, which revealed more facts about this story including insight from Saroo's birth mother who never moved from her town and never gave up hope of finding her son. We learn the meaning of the film's title "Lion," which had me puzzled until the screen went black and then gave the film an entirely new meaning.
On merits alone this movie is a masterpiece. There isn't a dense plot with side stories and miscellaneous characters. This is a story of one boy who never gave up his search to find his mother. In a country of over 1 billion people, the odds were insurmountable. For this story to be told with so much craft should instantly put this on the top of your must-see movie list.