They could have called this “Google Earth: the Movie.”
What a wonderful year this has been for movies Based on True Stories and/or Inspired by Actual Events, from “Sully” to “Hacksaw Ridge,” from “Queen of Katwe” to “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” from “Eddie the Eagle” to “Southside with You,’ from “The Infiltrator” to “Bleed for This.”
Add to that stellar roster “Lion,” a story sure to reduce four out of five moviegoers to tears in the final act — and those waterworks are honestly and legitimately earned.
Director Garth Davis weaves a magical tale grounded in reality and Dev Patel delivers an intense, laser-focused performance as Saroo Brierly, who is separated from his family as a very small boy in India, is adopted by an Australian couple — and a quarter-century later relies on Google Earth and undying determination to chart a course back to his family and his homeland.
It’s not as clear-cut as it might sound. Saroo was all of 5 years old when a chain of tragic circumstances left him alone, a thousand miles from his remote and tiny village. Even when Saroo starts remembering gauzy fragments from the distant past, he doesn’t know his real name, he doesn’t know his mother’s name and he doesn’t know the name of the tiny outpost where he was born — in a country with a population of more than 1.2 billion.
“Lion” is really two distinct stories of two incredible journeys, and each-half movie is remarkable in its own way.
The first half centers on the young Saroo (Sunny Pawar, who captures your heart instantly), who pleads with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to tag along on a long train ride.
Saroo falls asleep. When he wakes up at a train station, his brother is nowhere to be found. Saroo wanders around, calling his brother’s name to no avail, and eventually boards a train car, hoping it will take him home — but in fact the train is going in the opposite direction.
The little boy finds himself in the city of Calcutta, a thousand miles from home. He doesn’t speak the local language. He joins the legions of children living on the streets, barely survives some harrowing encounters, winds up in an overcrowded orphanage that’s just a slight step better than living on the streets — and is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).
It’s a semi-happy ending — Saroo is certainly more fortunate than the vast majority of the millions upon millions of lost and abandoned and unwanted Indian children who will never find a true home — but as the plane takes off and India recedes in the distance, it seems all but certain he’ll never see his brother or his mother or his birthplace again.
Flash forward two decades. Saroo (now played by Patel) is an intelligent, handsome, self-assured, “Australianized” young man with zero recollection of his childhood and almost no cultural attachment to his homeland. While Saroo’s upbringing was hardly idyllic, mostly due to the heartaches caused by his deeply troubled adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), he was raised in middle-class comfort and he was loved and supported by his parents. He’s good.
Except for one thing. Saroo never quite feels 100 percent comfortable in his own shoes, his own life. When Saroo’s powers of recall are trigged by a sense memory, he becomes obsessed with reconnecting with his biological family.
While the first half of “Lion” is a sprawling, often intense story of a lost little boy on the move and in search of his home, the second half is a much smaller but equally intense mystery and character study, with Saroo shutting out his parents and his supportive girlfriend (Rooney Mara, terrific as usual), losing his professional ambition and cloistering himself with his laptop and his charts and his notes, as pushes himself to remember, remember, remember ANYTHING that can take him one step closer to home.
Nicole Kidman gives a powerful and moving performance as Saroo’s adoptive mother, who loves her son with every molecule of her being but comes to understand his quest. It’s as good as anything she’s done in the last decade.
“Lion” is a beautifully told, uplifting story of courage and determination.
It’s also a pretty great advertisement for Google Earth.
The Weinstein Co. presents a film directed by Garth Davis and written by Luke Davies. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material and some sensuality). Running time: 120 minutes. Opens Sunday at local theaters.