Nominated for six Critics Choice Awards, four Golden Globes Awards, two NAACP Image Awards and two SAG Awards, most have been for Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman for their supporting roles. Both will likely be representing the film at the 89th Academy Awards. It might also get some recognition for its score and its production design.
In hindsight, it seems as if director Garth Davis has created a two-hour long ad for Google Earth. Hopefully, Davis or the distributors of this film, the Weinstein Company, got a huge check from Google because basically this is probably the best piece of commercial advertising that Google Earth could have ever asked for. It’s an emotional gut-punch. It had me in tears from beginning to end. The story and the way that it’s rendered are so heart-breaking that it can’t help but shake a person to his core, perhaps to his very soul, and because Google Earth and its mapping technology are fully integrated into any and all Google searches, I think it will be hard anytime for anyone searching for a location or directions on that website not to have this film come to mind. It’s very powerful.
Adapted by Luke Davies, based on a book by Saroo Brierley, this film tells the story of a little boy in India who gets lost and separated from his family in 1986. A white Australian couple adopts him the next year out of an orphanage and he’s raised down under until he’s inspired to search for his roots in India in 2008. His only tool is Google Earth, which was rather new at the time but provided him the ability to see real-life, satellite images of his home country as well as establish a search radius based on the fact that the last place he remembers was a train station in Calcutta.
Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) stars as Saroo Brierley, the gorgeous young man who travels to Melbourne, Australia, to study hotel management. While he’s there, he meets and falls in love with Lucy, played by Oscar-nominee Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Carol). He says he was born in India but was raised in Australia. She takes him to meet some of her Indian friends. It’s there that he starts to have flashbacks, which recall his life in India until the age of 5 or 6 when he was lost and then adopted.
Patel is beautiful and absolutely stunning in this role. He’s great at playing this lost boy, not quite in Neverland but close. Even when he’s surrounded by people like him, he doesn’t quite fit. Even when he’s with his adopted family, including a fellow Indian boy adopted to be his brother, Mantosh, played as an adult by Divian Ladwa, there’s still a disconnect. He was a little boy cut off from all that he knew who then had to survive on his own. A lot of the film is about isolation and Davis does a good job of framing his shots and the character of Saroo in that way. Even in a party scene where Saroo is with Lucy and surrounded by tons of other people, he still feels isolated.
In that, the film is not that much different from Life of Pi, the story of an Indian boy, isolated and lost at sea who has to contend with a tiger on his life raft. Except, instead of being lost at sea, Saroo is lost on the streets of Calcutta. There was even an allusion in Life of Pi that the boy and the tiger are one and the same. Here, that allusion is a little more direct. Here, Saroo is the titular big cat.
There have been plenty of films, including documentaries, which have dealt with poverty in places like Calcutta, India, as well as homeless or lost children in that country. Patel’s most notable movie prior to this, Slumdog Millionaire, is one such example. That movie, however, had a lot sillier and over-the-top premise, executed in silly and over-the-top ways, which was entertaining for sure but didn’t quite tap the emotional core like this film does.
This film is so straightforward, so earnest, so sincere. Yet, it’s so well done. Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman (The Hours and Moulin Rouge!) is indicative of how well the movie succeeds. She plays Sue Brierley, the adoptive mother of Saroo. Hers isn’t a big role, but all her moments are so earnest, so sincere and so genuine that even absent her star power, she’s able to make an indelible mark. Her character also expresses something, which I rarely hear in films or TV. Her reason for adopting isn’t because she couldn’t have children. It was because there are already too many children in the world. That’s something rather fresh that one often doesn’t hear. Usually, it’s all about the biological connection but non-biological connections can be just as strong.
As the aforementioned ad for Google Earth, the director could have been bogged down in too many scenes of sexy Dev Patel at a computer screen. Davis is instead able to capture the feeling of that lost Indian boy who is abandoned, alone, destitute and scared. Before Patel appears on screen, the first act is dominated with a child actor who embodies that. In a year that’s seen some great child performances from Moonlight to The Fits, this one by Sunny Pawar has to be counted as one of the best.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sensuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 58 mins.