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Gorgeous 'Lion' highlights a heartbreaking and inspiring clash between two worlds
Dev Patel stars in Lion. - photo by Josh Terry
LION 3 stars Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Priyanka Bose; PG-13 (thematic material and some sensuality); in general release

Seeing "Lion" could be a horrifying experience for any parent who has lost a child in the grocery store. It's a movie that pretty much has to be based on a true story because there's no way you would buy it otherwise.

The film opens in mid-1980s India in a remote village shot with such care and skill that its beauty masks the utter destitution of the people who live there. Right away we meet Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), who spend their days trying to find creative and usually illegal ways to augment the meager income of their laborer class mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose).

Saroo adores Guddu, and talks his older brother into bringing him along on a night expedition. But the brothers are separated at a train station, and one two-day ride later, Saroo is dumped 1,600 kilometers from home in Calcutta.

Saroo's heartbreaking predicament goes from bad to worse, as his efforts to return to a home he's too young to identify are complicated by a language barrier (he speaks Hindi; everyone else speaks Bengali) and various nefarious characters that try to prey on street children.

Eventually Saroo winds up in an orphanage and, from there, is placed with an Australian couple named John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman). Soon after, "Lion" jumps forward 20 years, where a grown Saroo (Dev Patel) is studying to become a hotel manager. His happy ending seems satisfying enough, complete with a pretty girlfriend named Lucy (Rooney Mara). But soon Saroo becomes obsessed with finding his original home when he finally realizes he can't completely embrace the First-World life he's been given.

Between the lengthy amount of time we spend with 5-year-old Saroo and the jarring transition from Third-World India to First-World Australia, "Lion" feels like a curious junction of two very different films. The sight of young Saroo walking around the Brierley's house for the first time almost feels as poignant as seeing him as an adult walking around India.

The theme of identity is the most obvious thread in director Garth Davis' film, which, thanks to the Google Earth search Saroo employs to comb through the remote villages of India, doubles as one of the greatest cinematic arguments in favor of the wonders of modern technology.

But the highlight of the film is easily the performance of young Sunny Pawar. It's difficult enough to watch Saroo's plight and imagine a 5-year-old in such impossible circumstances, but watching the story play out through Pawars innocent brown eyes under his mop of hair is heartbreaking.

"Lion" is also a film that truly needs to be seen in full-scale to be appreciated. Greig Frasers cinematography is masterful in everything from wide establishment shots to intimate closeups.

Like so many recent "based on a true story" dramas, "Lion" finishes with a peek at the real-life characters that lived the story we are seeing onscreen. While it does offer a heartwarming sense of satisfaction on one level, the conclusion and the jump from India to Australia also undermines the otherworldly quality of the film's first half, and the sheer volume of story short-changes the depth of development for some of the film's subplots, such as Sue's relationship with her adopted children, meant to bookend Saroo's search for his biological mother.

Yet none of those sacrifices seriously undercuts the film's final value. "Lion" is not an easy journey, but it is a thoughtful, worthwhile and ultimately inspiring experience.

Lion is rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sensuality; running time: 118 minutes.
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