For the cynical, the decision to nominate Lion– a film about a young Indian boy separated from his family after getting on the wrong train, starring Dev Patel- for Best Picture at the Oscars may seem a major retread of 2009’s Slumdog Millionaire victory. Yet Garth Davis’ drama shares as much DNA with this year’s Moonlight as it does with Slumdog, depicting the effect of childhood experience on an adult character using the backdrop of an adoption and search for biological parents.
Patel is the adult incarnation of Saroo, who wanders away from his brother as a child and journeys across an unfamiliar landscape before being adopted by a Tasmanian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). As Young Saroo, Sunny Pawar is exceptional: an adorable discovery who carries the film for its first hour. He is as deserving of an Oscar nomination as his adult counterpart. Patel, given a rare chance to showcase his leading man potential, is an equally appealing presence. A romance between Saroo and Rooney Mara’s Lucy, and a subplot involving a psychologically-scarred adoptive brother, contribute additional weight to the affecting story. Cinematographer Greig Fraser shoots rural India stunningly, and the film’s latter portion acts as a great tourist ad for Tasmania.
As adult Saroo struggles with his sense of identity and searches relentlessly for his real family, the film never becomes overly sentimental; there is a nuanced sincerity to the character’s relationship with his adoptive mother. Of this year’s crop of ‘true story’ human dramas, Lion is one of the more believable, and perhaps the most moving.