Movies are all about telling stories. Sometimes those stories are fictional, and sometimes those stories are ripped right from the pages of real life. Often times, those real life stories wind up being the most compelling, at least when executed the right way. Lion is one of those movies and more so, it is one of the best movies of 2016.
Lion tells the real-life story of Saroo Brierley who was separated from his family in India at the age of 5, who then winds up being adopted by a family in Australia. Years later, he decides to go on a quest to find his long-lost mom and brother, but at great personal cost. On paper, it is a very simple premise but one that comes with a lot of very intense, very grounded and very real emotion that anyone should be able to relate to.
There is no question that something like Lion could just have easily been made into a semi-effective Lifetime movie with B-list actors and a second-rate director who is just cashing a paycheck. Fortunately, this story got the treatment it deserved. In the best of circumstances (and Lion was clearly made under the best of circumstances), people who bring genuine passion to the project will make sure to tell a story like this in a way that makes the audience feel as though they are taking this journey themselves, or at least experience the emotion of that journey. It is truly remarkable that director Garth Davis hasn't actually made a feature length movie before, because a movie like this with such subtlety and expert craft would make you think he had been in the Oscar race many times before, much like when someone on the level of say a Gus Van Sant, makes a good movie. Sure, Garth Davis directed the first season of Top of the Lake, which was super solid, but movies are not TV and TV shows are not movies. The talent doesn't always translate.
As much as Garth Davis is owed for the success that is Lion, this is a personal story and thus, it relies very heavily on the people in it. To that point, the cast hits it out of the park from top to bottom. Even in the early parts of the movie, which take place entirely in India and largely centers on the talents of child actors, everything works. Sunny Pawar deserves a ton of recognition for playing the young version of Saroo, because he anchors the emotional ride you are going on for the rest of the movie. With that said, the performance turned in by Dev Patel as Saroo is award worthy and could be the best of his career, which has admittedly been varied, but definitely has some truly shining moments. Lion is easily going to put him right in the awards season conversation. Mark my words; the Oscars will not be so white this year, but not because there is social pressure, but because there are elements of this movie that deserve recognition.
The second and third acts of Lion rest heavily on Dev Patel's shoulders and he should be applauded for his efforts, but his supporting cast is equally as strong, with whatever screen time they are given. Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman both crush it as his love interest and adopted mother, respectively. David Wenham also winds up being the adopted father that most guys who had a less than adequate father growing up wish they had. I could run down the entire IMDB cast list for this movie and just heap praise onto the entire ensemble, but just know that everyone is great, as is often the case with great movies. They oddly go hand-in-hand that way.
What is perhaps most important in a movie like Lion is that it did not get the typical "white guy" treatment that Hollywood is very famous for. This is a story about something that happened to an Indian person and it is told largely in that environment and told from that perspective. How easy it would have been in the hands of lesser talent to tell this story from the white mom's perspective or something like that. Or on the flipside, how easy it would have been to essentially play it in the much less classy "Look how diverse we are being! Aren't we so diverse?!" fashion. This movie does it tastefully, but as though it isn't a big deal. It is simply the way it needed to be and should be. That said, with all of the complaints that Hollywood loves to whitewash and doesn't promote diversity, it is equally important for audiences to support a movie like Lion so that Hollywood will continue to have a reason (beyond the fact that it is the right thing to do) to keep making these movies. Also, you should see Lion because it is a seriously fantastic and moving movie.
Coming from The Weinstein Company, Lion is a movie based on the book A Long Way Home, which was written by the real Saroo Brierley. Sometimes, it is better to see a movie after you read the book. Sometimes the opposite is true. I can't speak to that in the case of Lion, because I did not read the book. What I will say is that seeing this movie and not knowing what is going to happen is largely what made it work.Though, if you have read the book I still wholly encourage you to see the movie. I can't think of any good reason someone shouldn't see this movie. No, it doesn't have a lot of action or fast paced editing or anything like that. No fancy tricks, but it will make you feel something real. Depending on your level of emotional response, you should either bring a small cup or perhaps a bucket to catch your tears. Either way, go see this movie.