[Screen It]


(2016) (Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar) (PG-13)

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Drama: After accidentally ending up one thousand miles from his home, a young and poor Indian boy survives as a street kid, ends up adopted, and later searches for his family as a young man.
It's 1986 and Saroo (SUNNY PAWAR) is a 5-year-old boy growing up dirt poor in Khandwa, India, with his mom, Kamla (PRIYANKA BOSE), older brother, Guddu (ABHISHEK BHARATE), and a toddler sister. Kamla makes next to nothing carrying rocks to feed her family, so Guddu is always out looking for legal and illegal ways to get them food. After Saroo convinces his brother to allow him to join him for work, Guddu ends up leaving the sleepy boy at a train station at night, promising he'll be right back.

But when Saroo wakes up, his brother is nowhere to be found and the station is empty. He eventually ends up boarding an empty train and falls asleep, only to wake up once the train is in motion and all of the doors are locked. Several days later, the train pulls into Calcutta, 1600 kilometers east of his home. Unable to speak the native tongue there and mispronouncing the name of his hometown, young Saroo becomes a street kid and eventually is put into an orphanage.

With the authorities having no idea where he's from and unable to find any family members, they allow Sue (NICOLE KIDMAN) and John Brierley (DAVID WENNHAM) to adopt Saroo and return him to their home in Australia. The boy quickly adapts to his new life there, unlike another adoptive brother, Mantosh (KESHAV JADHAV), who later joins the family and has various developmental issues, such as hitting himself.

Two decades later, Saroo (DEV PATEL) is heading off to get a degree in hotel management and it's there that he meets and eventually ends up dating a fellow student, Lucy (ROONEY MARA). Few know of Saroo's past, but when some of Lucy's friends hear his tale, they inform him of a new technology known as Google Maps that might help him figure out where his home was in India and thus maybe find his family. As he tries to do just that, he keeps his quest secret from his parents, not wanting to disappoint them as grown-up Mantosh (DIVIAN LADWA) has already done.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Parents face all sorts of fears when it comes to their kids ranging from long-term worries about whether they're raising them to be future responsible adults to more short-term concerns such as illnesses, bullies and so on. One of the bigger and thankfully usually only acute nerve-wracking fears is when one's child goes missing for just a moment or two.

Panic sets in as thoughts of abduction, running out into the street and other such worse case scenarios race through the mind at such moments. Of course, such fear can arise on the other side of the equation when kids get separated or lose track of their parents. I distinctly recall being a young, pre-school kid who liked hiding inside circular clothing racks in department stores while my mom shopped.

And I definitely remember the panic of coming out and realizing she was nowhere to be found. Thankfully, she was nearby, but I can't imagine if I had fallen asleep in there and then come out of that clothing rack and somehow found myself alone in the store.

A far more severe variation of that sort of experience is at the heart of and serves as the jumping off point in "Lion," a superb drama based on a real-life incident. Of course, as the missing or endangered child scenario is a nearly universal experience, it's not unusual to have that used in varying ways in movies, although most are shown from the parent's perspective.

Working from Luke Davies' screenplay adaptation of the 2014 non-fiction book "A Long Way Home" by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose, first-time feature filmmaker Garth Davis spins that around to show it from the child's angle. And one from an impoverished neighborhood of Khandwa in central India. In the mid-1980s, 5-year-old Saroo Brierley (born Sheru Munshi Khan and played here by Sunny Pawar) travels with his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), to a train station where the latter leaves the sleepy boy there, promising to return in short order.

But when Saroo wakes up, the station is deserted and he boards an empty train to look for his brother. Not finding him, he falls asleep and then wakes up again, only to find himself locked inside the otherwise still-empty train that eventually deposits him nearly 1,000 miles away.

So begins his odyssey of being a street kid, eventually ending up in an orphanage and finally being adopted by an Australian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) that whisks him off to a new home thousands of miles away and filled with various creature comforts.

Two-plus decades later, now grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) has obviously adjusted well to his adoptive upbringing and is dating a fellow hotel management student, Lucy (Rooney Mara). But he can't shake the feeling that his biological brother and mother (Priyanka Bose) likely searched relentlessly for him after his disappearance and may continue to hold out hope that one day they'll find him. When some of his girlfriend's friends hear his tale, they inform him of a new tech tool known as Google Maps and from that point forward, and using his sketchy and severely faded memories, he tries to find his hometown and family.

It's a well-told and engaging tale that's all the more remarkable in that it's based on a true story (where some of the facts have been changed through artistic license, but the main characters and general gist remain mostly intact). While I initially found the switch from young Saroo to his twenty-something counterpart a bit jarring (as his early childhood experiences have a definite Dickens sort of vibe to them and the latter years don't), I ended up accepting the temporal segue once the additional emotional, thematic and storytelling elements came into play regarding the protagonist and his desire to locate his family.

The performances are terrific all-around (especially from both actors playing the lead), the script is good, and the direction is terrific, a descriptor that also applies to Greig Frasier's outstanding cinematography and the score by Hauschka and Dustin O'Halloran. While it won't likely allay parents' fears of losing track of their kids, at least "Lion" shows that such emotional wrenching scenarios can have happy endings. The film rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 29, 2016 / Posted December 30, 2016

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