Dev Patel doesn't appear until nearly an hour into Lion – but when he does his strong, soulful, Oscar-buzzed performance cuts deep. The film is based on Saroo Brierley's bestselling memoir A Long Way Home, about a five-year-old Indian boy, raised in abject poverty, who falls asleep on a train and ends nearly 1,000 miles away in Calcutta. With only a child's memory of his single mother (Priyanka Bose) and his Hindi village, Saroo is stranded on dangerous streets among a Bengali-speaking populace he can't understand or dare to trust. It's then that this kid is adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who give him an education and raise him in posh, middle-class comfort.
Adorable newcomer Sunny Pawar plays the young man with open-faced appeal and no trace of smart-ass child-actor precociousness. Patel takes over the role in the film's second half, when the adult Saroo labors to find his birth mother using Google Earth. It's a wild, WTF tale that could easily get bogged down in sentimental gushing. That it doesn't (much) is a tribute to first-time feature director Garth Davis, working from a script by Luke Davies that steps smartly even when Saroo's romance with fellow student Lucy (Rooney Mara) distracts us from the chase.
No spoilers about how things turn out, but Davis rigorously avoids turning real-life misfortune into Hollywood treacle. Kudos to Kidman, whose unglam, unguarded take on the role is emotionally powerful and true; her scenes with Patel provide just the right blend of grit and grace. And the young star, maturing nicely past the boyish enthusiasm he showed in Slumdog Millionaire and Marigold Hotel films, enters a new phase of his career with fierce commitment. Lion is one from the heart.