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On paper, Lion shouldn't work. The premise, when said aloud, seems so laughable that there should be no way that a dramatic feature can sustain the improbability of the situation, despite the fact that it's based on a true story -- one in which a grown man uses Google Maps to locate his remote home village after being away for decades. And yet, the movie hits its marks, thanks primarily to an open-hearted performance by Dev Patel, and an engrossing opening act that establishes the reality of one man's unusual predicament, so that we believe the story every step of the way.
But why is it called Lion? The answer comes at the very end of the film, and by that point, you will be sobbing into soaking wet tissues because Patel and director Garth Davis will have successfully navigated you through an emotional journey of familial support and discovery. And it's worth every step taken on that path, starting with the introduction of 5-year-old Indian boy Saroo (Sunny Pawar), who lives with his mother and older brother in the Ganesh Tilai neighborhood of Khandwa, India. One evening, while following his brother to a job site, Saroo is separated from his older sibling, and ends up on a train that takes him miles from home. It takes him 25 years to return.
Lion explains how Saroo gets back home, and man, is it an impossible journey. It's not all terrible. Working off of Saroo Brierley's autobiographical book A Long Way Home, Garth Davis spends the proper amount of time following a lost, confused and terrified Saroo as the child tries to make sense of his situation. He passes through the hands of several strangers over the course of weeks and months until, finally, he is adopted by John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman), Aussies who raise the young boy as their own.
At this point, Lion fast forwards two decades, and we're still in the basic mechanics of the plot. Saroo, now played by Patel, is a well-balanced college student with supportive parents, a mentally-disabled step-brother (Divian Ladwa), and a progressive girlfriend (Rooney Mara, the only actor in this cast who seems out of place). During a discussion with classmates, Saroo begins to question his heritage, and with the help of modern technologies -- specifically Google Earth -- he wonders if he could ever deduce which Indian village he once called home.
And do you know what? Even without me telling you how Saroo's adventure concludes, it's miraculous how his story -- and this movie -- makes the world feel smaller, and makes our global community feel more connected. Lion takes Saroo's quest and turns it into a technological mystery, with an emotional goal on the other side of the finish line. And instead of being hokey, the use of Google Maps to piece together the scraps of Saroo's childhood memories have a sense of urgency (credit to Davis for figuring out how to make the act of Patel perched in front of a computer screen compelling).
There isn't quite enough for Lion to sustain tension over the course of its complete run time. The conflicts Patel has with Rooney Mara are forced and empty, though Patel connects with Ladwa as "brothers" paired by parents they really can't call their own. But the underlying maternal disconnect felt between Kidman and Patel comes home to roost when Lion arrives at its overwhelmingly satisfying conclusion. In a season of cinematic tearjerkers, from the devastating (A Monster Calls) to the cynical (Collateral Beauty), Lion literally earns every heartstring tug with its impossible story of rediscovering ones childhood with the help of cutting-edge technology and good, old-fashioned resolve.