The season's warm fuzzy at multiplexes is Lion, a true story inspiring two movies in one. Like its hero, Garth Davis' directing debut is divided between the culture Saroo Brierley was born to and another that adopted him, dovetailing in a tearjerking climax.
Lion's first hour is its finest, a vivid tour of mid 1980s India through the eyes of 5-year-old Saroo, played to astonishing effect by Sunny Pawar. Saroo's mother (Priyanka Bose) is a laborer hauling rocks, his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) a partner in stealing coal to trade for milk.
An obvious comparison is Slumdog Millionaire except Lion goes in a grimmer direction. During a trip to town Saroo is separated from Guddu, ending up locked inside an out-of-commission train heading for Calcutta, 1,500 miles away. When discovered on arrival, Saroo's rural Hindi dialect leaves everyone speaking Bengali unable to learn where he's from.
Survival depends upon kindness from strangers, not all to be trusted. Pawar conveys curiosity and instinct with a naturalism that trained actors would hope to possess. Of all things for which Davis can be complimented on Lion, finding Pawar and drawing out this performance deserves it most.
Saroo proves to be a bright child, sent to an orphanage where he's soon adopted by Australian couple Sue and John Breierley (Golden Globe nominee Nicole Kidman, David Wenham), whisking him farther away from the mother and brother he still misses.
Lion leaps ahead 20 years to Golden Globe nominee Dev Patel as adult, assimilated Saroo. He's studying hotel management in Melbourne, gets an American girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and contends with the Brierleys' other adopted son, the emotionally disturbed Mantosh (Divian Ladwa). All the while, Saroo's desire grows to find his mother and Guddu.
At which point Lion finds its emotional center, exploring familial bonds past and present. Saroo is chasing relatives he barely remembers while hoping his adoptive family won't mind. Sue declares unconditional love, in a scene Kidman turns into a moving awards show clip.
Luke Davies' adaptation of Saroo's memoir A Long Way Home goes exactly where the title promises, but an emotional journey makes fresher the predictable destination. Modern technology and Saroo's obsessive spiral, well played by Patel, lend a original spin. Lion can't avoid seeming lesser in the second half after Davis' mesmeric first but it's solid storytelling nonetheless. Bring the Kleenex.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.