Movie Review: LION Is An Incredible Tale Of Finding Your Identity
A beautiful movie

lion

Lion is split in half. The first half follows a young Indian boy named Saroo as he gets lost in India. He wanted to help his brother get some work, and when they got to the train station where that was supposed to happen he got a little tired. He takes a little nap and when he wakes up his brother his gone. He searches for him high and low, only to get stuck on a decommissioned train and sent 1,600 KM away from his home.

The second half gives us a grown up Saroo played by Dev Patel and, while the first half of the movie takes us on Saroo’s harrowing journey as a homeless child in India, the second half takes us on a heartfelt journey of identity. While each half is emotionally different, they are identical thematically; Saroo is trying to find home.

The first half of the film is terrifying and tense. Young Saroo is exposed to a cold, dark world where no one seems to want to help him, largely because homeless children is such a common sight that it doesn’t even register that they should. Saroo, because he’s a child, has nothing but his instincts to guide him through the world his mother and brother sheltered him from. This part of the movie plays out like a silent film a lot of the time, and when it’s not silent there are subtitles because everyone is speaking Hindi.

But even if there weren’t any subtitles you’d be fine. This half of the movie is perfectly cinematic. You feel everything you’re supposed to. You feel Saroo’s fear, but you also see his resourcefulness and his drive. You can see this is a kid who can figure things out for himself. You feel sad for him as he lays down on cardboard for the night, or fear when he outruns traffickers, or pity and pride as he retrieves his cardboard for when he needs it later.

This stuff is good, but the second half is what propels Lion into a great movie. The film flips, and Saroo is adopted by an Australian family. He grows up Australian, forgetting much of his culture. He can no longer speak the language we saw him speaking in the first half. He no longer eats the food we saw him eat. He’s a different person, until he heads off to college and gets partnered with a study group that consists of kids from all over the world. That includes Rooney Mara’s Lucy, a girl he has a connection to, and a whole bunch of students from India.

He goes to a party at the Indian kids’ home, and the food there triggers a memory that awakes a burning desire to find home again. Dev Patel is extraordinary, because he sells this burning desire as something that Saroo needs to do to be a functioning human again. You can see what he thought was his identity crumble, and it begins to take a toll on him as a person.

Patel combines that desire with a madness that borders between being legitimately insane and just being passionate. It’s a wonder to see him toe that line so successfully, and while you’re tempted to say that Saroo has finally broken and hit rock bottom, he gives you a couple ounces of humanity to realize that this is just something he truly cares about.

This search for identity is the soul of Lion. This is a movie that understands that sometimes, as a person, you need to accept your entire self rather than forget about the past. You need closure on certain parts of your life, and closure doesn’t always mean following a thread until its finished. Sometimes closure means following a thread until it leads down a new hallway of life. And you can’t be afraid of how that thread might affect how your life is at the moment you pick up that string.

Lion is a showcase for everyone involved. The cast is top notch, from Sunny Pawar as Young Saroo to Nicole Kidman as Saroo’s adopted mother to Mara and the other various characters that show up. None of them are as brilliant as Patel, who puts in one of the best performances of the year and cements him as one of the best actors working today, but that’s a high bar to match.

Then there’s also director Garth Davis, who makes his big feature debut with an assured hand and a brisk pace. There are large swaths of Lion where Saroo is using Google Earth to find his family. Having a character sit on a couch looking at a computer isn’t cinematically exciting, but Davis finds a way to make this thrilling. More than that, he finds a way to make it delicate and tense. You will never feel as much watching someone scroll through Google Earth than you will watching Lion.

Calling a movie beautiful has two meanings. First, the movie could have beautiful cinematography, giving it more of a literal meaning. That’s the most common use case. There are certain movies where you can instead refer to the storytelling and narrative as beautiful. Lion is one of those movies.

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