Labelling Golden Globe and Academy Award nominee “Lion” something reductive like “the Google Earth movie” is unnecessarily unfair to the emotional, inspirational film from director Garth Davis.

“Lion” is a family story about loss and hope, searching for a sense of place and identity. The poignant, touching tale is adapted from Saroo Brierley’s autobiographical book “A Long Way Home” by writer Luke Davies and is told in two parts broken up into hour-long segments. 

The first tells the gripping, tragic tale of five-year-old Saroo, a boy living in rural India who is separated from his family and awakes in Calcutta alone hundreds of miles away from home. The second features a mature Saroo living in Tasmania with his adoptive parents, who longs for connection to his birth mother and brother and begins a search using the new Google Earth mapping program.

While there are much more famous performers in “Lion,” young Sunny Pawar gives the film’s best and most devastating performance as the young Saroo. Pawar opens the film with such vibrancy of life and then slowly has it ripped away from him, leaving Pawar completely lost in the moments to incredibly heart-wrenching effect. “Lion” is as poignant of a film as it is wholly due to Pawar’s unique ability to draw audiences in and captivate their hearts, a talent few adults – let alone children –  have.

Abhishek Bharate also delivers in spades with a strong performance as Saroo’s protective older brother, Guddu, who serves as much as a surrogate father to Saroo as he does a loyal brother. Bharate does a terrific job supporting Pawar’s touching portrayal without getting in the way.

As the older Saroo, Dev Patel is an emotional wreck struggling to internalize his longings, hiding them from his adoptive family and girlfriend. Scene to scene, moment by moment, Patel slowly unravels Saroo’s inner demons as if they were layers of an onion being pulled apart. Audiences can feel Pawar’s performance haunting Saroo in Patel’s eyes as the pain of loss bubbles to the surface. It’s an emotional, touching portrayal that represents Patel’s best work to date.

Oscar winner Nicole Kidman is a likely nominee for her supporting work as Saroo’s adoptive mother. In each scene whether she’s working opposite Patel or Pawar, Kidman brings such a motherly warmth to the performance that might often be phoned in by a less committed actress. One scene late in the film where Saroo confronts his mother about why she did not have any biological children of her own will probably serve as her highlight reel for a presumptive Academy Award nomination.

“Lion” doesn’t give talented young actress Rooney Mara much to do, and as such her performance as Saroo’s girlfriend who helps get the ball rolling on his quest to find his family is pretty underwhelming. It feels as though script sacrifices were made to invest more time in Pawar, Patel and Kidman, though doing so at the expense of someone like Mara feels like a waste.

Davis does a great job as director in staying out of the way for the most part, allowing the film’s performances to speak for themselves. 

The film’s strongest point, more so than even its terrific cast, is the brilliant cinematography from director of photography Greig Fraser. In the film’s first half, Fraser brings the camera lower and angles upward, allowing viewers to experience India from young Saroo’s perspective. The intimate and often haunting images this shooting style allows give “Lion” a special vibrancy not normally found in biopic dramas.

While not the obvious choice for a night out at the theaters or for the year’s top cinema prizes, “Lion” is well worth the price of admission and could be an upset winner in several major Oscar categories at next month’s ceremony. Its true story and efforts to raise awareness and funding for India’s large “street children” population will tug at audiences’ heartstrings as well.

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