Casting Review: Lion

Screen Shot 2017-03-01 at 5.58.19 PMOnce in awhile a movie comes along that shakes you, wrecks you, grabs at your heart strings and never really lets go. This incredible script, written by Australian writer Luke Davies, takes us on a journey of an Indian boy who gets separated from his older brother at a rural rail station and is forced to live on the streets. Living in the slums of India in the 80’s, Saroo escapes drowning, abduction and starvation until he is finally put in an orphanage. Shortly after he is adopted by a couple in Australia and is catapulted into a life of privilege, freedom and love. Lion overflows with intensity and grandeur shots of beautiful India, capturing a world of bravery along with the hopelessness that comes with stricken poverty and struggle.

For the casting of young Saroo (Sunny Pawar), producers held an open call in numerous elementary schools in India. Sunny was the first choice as soon as he walked in the room. Finding a kid who could convey the emotion required for a role like Saroo wasn’t easy…and for the auditioning process director Garth Davis simply played around with Sunny using improv and surprise. Sunny didn’t even know he was on camera. Davis and casting director Kirsty McGregor visited countless schools, and although they saw over 2,000 tapes and auditioned over 2,000 kids, Davis knew from the second Pawar walked in that he had found their Saroo. Since half of the movie is from the viewpoint of Saroo and involves him navigating through these external forces, having a sharp yet sensitive child is imperative to the story. Sunny is certainly wise beyond his years. When asked in an interview about what types of American food he likes, he laughed and insisted he only eats traditional Indian food. He plans on continuing to act, however he emphasizes his education is of the utmost importance. Sunny was just six years old when filming began.

“The whole process was so nourishing…there was such a truth to it. You can only go as far as where the script lets you go. This role allowed me to go into a very introverted space…a space of stillness.”

                                                                 –Dev Patel

After seeing the perils of young Saroo as a child, the film cuts to Saroo as an adult (Dev Patel). He is a happy, cared for Australian man now, brought up with lots of love and opportunity. Yet after the first few scenes we see signs of darkness, of remembering…he is is thinking deeply about his “lost” family more and more. You believe Dev Patel in his roles. He has a deep vulnerability and grip on wonderment and persistence. Saroo is brought up by nurturing Aussie parents Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley. While juggling work and school and newfound girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), Saroo starts having flashbacks and memories of his childhood so profound he can’t begin to shake them. We see Patel spiral from a touched curiosity to an emphatic earnestness within just a few scenes. As he attempts to secretly scour the newfound Google Maps (which was painfully slow with blurry pixels), we realize the vastness of India and finding the train station which belongs to his hometown is beyond the needle-in-the-haystack theory…it’s near impossible.

On top of strict Aussie dialect coaching and getting into shape physically, Dev Patel went to India before filming and road the trains, visited orphanages, and wrote diaries to create genuine memories to recollect as each scene unfolds. On the same note, the director would have Sunny and Dev play in the leaves in the woods of Saroo’s actual village. When Dev would be recalling India while he was shooting in Australia, Garth would play a tape with the sounds of the leaves so Dev would have a visceral reaction to the sound. His overall moodiness can sometimes be a bit daunting, as I found myself sort of waiting to come up to the surface for a breath of fresh, cheerful air.

Nicole Kidman brings an enormous amount of spirit to the film. It is nice to see her with her natural Aussie accent, and along with having adopted kids of her own and being outspoken about her adoration for all children, it seems to be a role she was certainly meant to play. She ages quite gracefully through the film and has a tenderness that we haven’t seen much in her typically colder roles (The Stepford Wives, To Die For). We see that she is endless in her love for Saroo and his also-adopted brother, Mantosh, yet struggles tremendously with Mantosh as he is a very troubled child. She conveys an enormous amount of glowing, motherly pride at the successes of Saroo and only wishes that she could soothe the pain of her other child…however he proves to be defiant and closed-off to the family. Kidman successfully portrays not only a mother, but a brave woman willing to sacrifice everything for her children’s happiness. Rooney Mara also brings a striking light to the film, effortless in her beauty and an effervescence that makes her almost ghostly…in the loveliest way.

This triumphant true story of love and family transcends beyond the classic book-to-movie scenario. It gives a glimpse into the bravery and tenacity of biological currents that are subconsciously ingrained in all of us, while teaching us of the importance of loving and protecting all children, no matter what their background.  It is a confident and heartfelt story worthy of every bit of its Oscar buzz.


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