The beauty of "Lion" is its very simple, yet extremely powerful story. It's based on a true one (and the less you know about it going in, the better). The way screenwriter Luke Davies and first-time feature film director Garth Davis ("Top of the Lake") have adapted "Lion" from the page (the 2013 memoir, A Long Way Home) to the screen is nothing short of fascinating, boldly combining all the basic human emotions - love, sadness, grief, anger, joy and hope to produce one of the year's best films.
The first half of "Lion" is devoted to the main character, Saroo, as a young boy. He lives in a small, impoverished village in India with his mother, older brother and younger sister. It's 1986 and even at 5 years old, Saroo insists on helping brother Guddu steal coal from a passing train to sell for the basic food the family needs to stay alive. One night, Saroo and Guddu head-out on what was supposed to be a week-long work trip. But the brothers get separated, and Saroo ends-up alone on a train that takes him many miles from his homeland. Much like Jacob Tremblay in last year's "Room", newcomer Sunny Pawar is captivating and totally convincing. A minute doesn't go by that you don't want to reach into the movie screen and save this lost boy.
Saroo becomes one of India's nearly half-million street children. Once the country's overwhelmed child protective services department determines no one is going to come forward to claim him, Saroo is adopted by a childless Australian couple. Nicole Kidman gives an emotional tight-rope performance as Saroo's new mother, Sue.
At about the halfway mark of "Lion", time elapses and Saroo has become a young adult, about to enter university. Dev Patel proves he's come a long way since "Slumdog Millionaire" and his over-the-top hotel manager role in the two "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" films. He's excellent here, in a career-defining, highly mature performance. Saroo has a great life: a loving family, success in school/work, a girlfriend (Rooney Mara is strong as Lucy) but something's missing - and he becomes haunted by memories of his mum and brother. Soon the obsession with locating his former home and returning there, in hopes of seeing his Mum and brother again, threaten to destroy his relationships and life as he knows it.
To quote Kidman in her most powerful scene, "Lion" administers an "electric shock" - that carries you to climax that's an emotional overload. Davis's direction is smart and inviting, making us feel like we are taking part in all of these journeys.
Minor thematic flaws involve obvious forms of coincidence (which are always a problem with the "based on a true story" genre), and the Kidman and Mara characters, themselves, are so strong I would have liked to see them developed even further. But "Lion" accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: tell this remarkable, honest and bittersweet story. It's not the most challenging movie of the year, but for many, it will be the most unforgettable.
"Lion" opens in limited release on November 25th.