Bona-Fide Sensation ‘Lion’ Celebrates Family

Proof that genuinely crafted and heartfelt films are far better than 'high concept'

The touching Australian drama “Lion” was hardly on anyone’s radar, at least in the United States, when it premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

That’s not surprising: Director Garth Davis was making his feature film debut; the most recognizable names in the cast (Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara) were in supporting roles; and it’s adapted from a relatively little-known book, “A Long Way Home,” in which Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose wrote about the former’s search for his birth family.

“Let’s just say if you are human, there is no way that ‘Lion’ won’t move you.”

And yet “Lion” has become a bona-fide sensation, coming seemingly from nowhere to earn six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel), and Best Supporting Actress (Kidman). The $12 million movie has earned more than $34 million worldwide to date, despite having only received a wide release in January.

It makes a little more sense when you realize “Lion” was picked up for distribution by The Weinstein Company, run by Bob and Harvey Weinstein. The brothers, who originally founded ’90s sensation Miramax, have long had a golden touch for plucking small films from obscurity and turning them into critical and commercial hits.

It helps that “Lion” is a genuinely well-crafted, heartfelt film, led by the performance of Patel, a British-born actor of Indian heritage best known for portraying the central character in 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” which won eight Oscars, including Best Picture.

Patel’s role as Brierley actually should have earned him a nomination in the Best Actor category, as he’s unquestionably the lead in “Lion.” But the studio lobbied for Patel to get a supporting actor nod instead, in hopes of improving his chances for both a nomination and a win.

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Ultimately, no amount of marketing or studio lobbying can help much if a film isn’t any good in the first place. Critics have been supportive of “Lion,” which holds an 88 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It holds a 93-percent approval rating from audiences on the site.

Key to the film’s appeal is its focus on the importance of family. Brierley (well-played in the film’s opening act by young Sunny Pawar) was separated from his family in rural India after boarding a train when he was five years old and waking up 700 miles away in Calcutta. Eventually he was adopted and grew up in Australia.

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As an adult, Brierley decided to try using Google Earth in hopes of finding the Indian village where he originated — and thus his birth family. Brierley’s relationships with his adoptive family and his yearning to reconnect with his biological family form the heart of the film.

Patel’s performance communicates the wide range of emotions and conflicts Brierley feels even while essentially playing detective, trying to solve the mystery of where he’s from and wondering whether his biological family is still even out there. He worries about the effect his search will have on his adoptive parents (and a troubled adoptive brother, also of Indian heritage).

On its face, it’s the sort of material that might sound more appropriate for a Hallmark Channel movie, albeit one with international flavor. It’s a credit to director Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies (whose adaptation also scored an Oscar nomination) that “Lion” is much more resonant than that, playing more like a grand, emotional adventure rather than pure melodrama.

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As film critic Susan Wloszczyna noted in her review for rogerebert.com: “Truly intelligent crowd-pleasers that avoid blatant manipulation are a rarity, but [Davis and Davies] mostly keep any sentimental overload at bay until the very end — and, by that time, it is exactly what the audience needs and the film deserves.”

Her review concludes: “Let’s just say if you are human, there is no way that ‘Lion’ won’t move you.”

That’s what makes “Lion” a refreshing tale for the big screen in the modern era. When it comes to features, Hollywood doesn’t show much interest in such emotionally intimate tales anymore, leaving that sort of thing to television. The central theme of family would be typically too traditional for Hollywood to take on these days.

Generally such productions focus on grand period dramas or spotlight individuals overcoming physical or mental disabilities, a tendency satirized to brutal extremes in films such as “Tropic Thunder.”

So it’s ultimately no surprise that “Lion” isn’t a Hollywood film. It’s an independent Australian movie, distributed (and impressively marketed) by an American company. The film recorded the highest opening ever in Australia for a local independent movie, earning more than $4 million in its opening weekend.

And while Hollywood, one hopes, will be learning some lessons from the success of “Lion,” its strong performance on U.S. screens reminds us there’s still a large theatrical audience here for well-acted, thoughtfully constructed tales about personal journeys that evoke traditional values and emotions.

To be successful, a movie doesn’t always have to be “high concept.” It just has to be good.