LION: YES! This powerful true story about a 5 year old boy in India who winds up lost on the other side of his homeland and finds a new life when he’s adopted by a successful white couple before engaging in an amazing search for his birth family 20 years later is one of this year’s Best Picture nominees. Beautifully told, it should be embraced by Catholics as a profound statement on the positive impact of adoption.
The need to know one’s roots and have a sense of belonging in this world is an innately human desire. Imagine if one wrong move made when you were five years old led to completely losing touch with your mom, siblings and everything you knew about the world?
Even if that tragic string of events led to finding a vastly better life, one that enabled you to escape grinding poverty through being adopted into a life of comfort, could you forget your past? Or would you be consumed with the need to find your real family and let them know you survived?
Those are the fascinating and fundamental questions at the heart of the film “Lion,” which is one of the nine films up for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars on Feb. 26. Starring Dev Patel, the actor who shot to worldwide fame as the star of the Best Picture-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2008, “Lion” takes viewers on a journey that not only reminds us of the power of family but also of the potential for adoption to save lives.
The story begins by showing a five-year-old boy named Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar in a performance of great emotional depth), who spends his days doing manual labor with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to help their mother and siblings survive. When Saroo begs Guddu to take him along on an overnight job and winds up too tired to work, Guddu tells him to sleep on a train stop bench and not wander anywhere.
Guddu never comes back, though, and when Saroo boards an empty train in search of him the next morning, the train unexpectedly embarks on a high-speed, 900-mile ride across India. When he stops, Saroo not only mispronounces his hometown while seeking help, but also finds that the people in his new province speak an entirely different dialect.
Thus begins a series of harrowing experiences, constantly on the run from one confusing encounter, never knowing whom to trust. But Saroo is saved from a life of desperation when he is rounded up in an orphanage and then rescued through adoption by a well-off white couple from Tasmania (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).
But even as he enjoys his new life, despite the presence of an emotionally damaged fellow adoptee who becomes his brother, Saroo grows up feeling lost. The film jumps to his mid-20s, when as an adult (played by Patel) he has a flashback to his brother and decides to find his original home once and for all.
That quest is riveting, and I’ll leave all details of how he does it out of the review since the magic of “Lion” hinges on this incredible effort. But just as Saroo uses modern technology to fulfill his primal need to find his family, “Lion” also works on multiple levels.
Patel and Kidman richly deserve their nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, with Kidman holding in a well of emotions before finally releasing 20 years of bound-up feelings in a particularly moving moment that might rank as her career best. Patel makes the most of his rare second chance at stardom, with a confident, dynamic performance as a man coming into the power of owning his true identity.
“Lion” is adapted by Luke Davies from the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley, an effort that also earned him a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s rare that a film can immerse viewers in two entirely different worlds over the course of two hours, but he achieves that goal first with an entire hour of subtitled events in India and via powerful dialogue in the film’s second half setting in a modern big city.
Despite all this, “Lion” is perhaps the biggest underdog in this year’s Oscar race, quietly racking up critics’ awards and nominations and slowly expanding its theater count nationwide. But it’s catching on more and more, entering the Top Ten at the box office in its fifth weekend of release and still growing through word of mouth.
Give it a chance, for not only is it an emotionally powerful experience, but “Lion” is the rare movie that can transform your view of the world we live in. It also serves as a reminder that the human experience may appear vastly different on the surface, yet is universally shared in our hearts.