"Lion" is almost everyone's odds-on favorite to be considered the tearjerker of the year. To put it the way a colloquial vulgarian might, this is a movie that will tear your heart out and, before it's over, stomp that sucker flat.
It's almost devastating throughout. Thank heaven for the ending of the early part of Garth Davis' film. It shows us, for almost an hour, a long, largely wordless portrait of an adorable 5-year-old Indian boy named Saroo who falls asleep on a decommissioned train. He is carried 1,200 miles away from home and wakes up in Calcutta to become a starving street kid who can't speak a word of Bengali. If that part of this tale had gone on 15 minutes longer, I'm not sure there would have been enough of me left to watch the rest. I think I'd have been wrung out.
The minute Dev Patel ("Slumgdog Millionaire") shows up as the grown version of Saroo Brierly, you're finally given some relief from watching a harrowingly filmed tale of a beautiful child subjected to some of the world's most wrenching misfortunes.
The film is based on Brierly's book "A Long Way Home," a near-miraculous true story about the man who, two decades after being carried away from mother and brother on that train, begins searching for them. Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) has almost silently survived displacement that would have made Dickens weep, been adopted by a loving Australian family and become obsessed with reuniting 25 years later with the mother and brother he knows have been awaiting his return.
So near miracle is the finale of this tale that it was, as the book came out, a natural subject for "60 Minutes."
What you see here is what happens to a truly great story when artists get it. I couldn't reasonably tell you that the central search part of the tale is as rending as Saroo's harrowing loss of family and his street life in Calcutta or the finale when the search brings him ever closer to the town he dimly remembers. But that middle period is when we remember - if we have ever forgotten - how affecting Nicole Kidman is in movies.
She plays Saroo's adopted mother, who raises him to become - as she and her husband eventually say - everything they could have hoped. Kidman was, it's said, personally chosen to play her by the woman she plays.
Grand choice all around. Kidman is great casting and it couldn't have been smarter for her to take on the role.
The search for the actor to play young Saroo is said to have involved looking at 4,000 kids. You will have no trouble believing that young Sunny Pawar is the most affecting and compelling child found among 4,000 candidates for the role.
The story you're watching here stretches credibility the singular way that true stories can. It's the fruition of a search that couldn't possibly have succeeded the way it did but did so anyway.
Whatever you do, don't leave before the final credit sequence.
There is, in footage of the real characters the story is about, one final reunion which will find yet another way to wipe the floor with your feelings.
This is a great holiday movie period here with some of the best of the year playing which isn't always the case.
You will, by the way, only learn why the movie is called "Lion" at the very end. A lovely ending.
★ ★ ★ ★ (out of 4)
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar.
Director: Garth Davis
Running time: 118 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 for theme and some sensuality.
The lowdown: A five-year-old from India is adopted by Australian parents and searches for his biological family 25 years later.
Opens: Dec. 25 in area theaters.