Wednesday, March 01, 2017

A Lion Among Movies

The Oscars have come and gone (with the Best Picture bait-and-switch win and my friends' irreverent commentary), but I still have a little bit of bookkeeping to do. I actually saw all nine of the Best Picture contenders, but the last of those came just two nights before the ceremony and I have yet to review it here. It turned out that with Lion, I'd saved the best for last.

Lion is likely the least well-known of the Best Picture nominees; I myself knew nothing of it going in, other than that its cast included Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. For those as much in the dark as I was, here's the summary. Lion opens in India in the year 1986. A five-year-old boy named Saroo is separated from his family and falls asleep on a train that carries him a thousand miles from home. Unable to find his way back, he's sent to an orphanage and is ultimately adopted by an Australian couple. More than 20 years later, adult Saroo then struggles with the few details he can recall to locate the family he lost so long ago.

The two actors I named above were both Oscar nominated for their roles. Dev Patel captures the complicated, tangled emotions of wanting to protect the feelings of his adoptive family while still yearning for reunion with his birth family. Nicole Kidman plays Saroo's adoptive mother, particularly earning her Oscar nod with a short but powerful scene in which she challenges her son's misconceptions surrounding his adoption.

But there are still more moving performances in the film. Rooney Mara plays Saroo's girlfriend Lucy, who first suggests that finding his original home might be possible -- and who must then deal with the fallout when he becomes obsessed. Divian Ladwa has a small but intense role as Mantosh, who though adopted like Saroo, does not adjust to it nearly as well. Priyanka Bose is potent as Saroo's biological mother, a role with both a realistic and fantastical component.

Then there's the beating heart of the movie: Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo. The perfect mix of fragile and tough, he tugs at your emotions from the first moment he appears on screen. The first third of the movie chronicles how Saroo loses his family, and Pawar's performance makes you feel every moment of it. In different scenes, it's as tense and sad and soulful as any child performance I've seen in years. Even if you know exactly where the movie is headed in the end, it's worth seeing for young Sunny Pawar and this opening act.

If I'd been voting for the Oscars from the nine contending Best Pictures, Lion would have been my pick. Its relative obscurity may make it a hard one to seek out in the theater, but I definitely recommend catching up with it when it finds its way to video. I give it an A-, and a slot on my Top Movies of 2016.

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