Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel star as the younger and older versions of Saroo. Finding himself in Calcutta and not speaking the language, Saroo has no way to locate his family. His street smarts enable him to survive and eventually be adopted by a loving Australian family. His quest, as a young adult, is to find his biological family.
This is an emotionally raw and gritty film which beautifully demonstrates the need for family and identity. It's no wonder it's an Oscar contender — it deserves it even though Pawar was overlooked completely, as was the director, Garth Davies.
Saroo (Pawar) is a ragamuffin, living in an extremely remote and poverty-stricken area of India. His mother picks up rocks for a living. The family relies on the older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), and Saroo to steal coal from moving trains to trade for the bare necessities of food. It's dangerous, but Saroo idolizes his older brother who teaches (and tolerates) his little sidekick.
Although the children must fend for themselves much of the time, the love among the family is unmistakable. As Saroo tags along with Guddu for a night job, the two are separated and Saroo is stuck on a train for days, traveling to a distant and foreign part of India. Saroo fends off would-be human traffickers and thieves, and finally lands in a place of relative safety. But his journey isn't over.
Now a young man, Saroo (Patel) feels a sense of loss of identity. It isn't until he is in college, discussing his background, that he realizes his desperate need to belong and know his roots. With the advent of Google Earth and some bright friends, Saroo begins his journey of identity. This all-consuming task has its consequences, not only for Saroo, but for his adoptive family as well.
The story strikes every emotional chord possible. As a mother and someone who has been adopted, this film resonates with me on the same level as "Philomena." Young Saroo captures your heart with his sweet little voice and mischievous yet angelic, big, brown eyes. Watching this little guy not only survive, but fend off people with ill will, is a gut-wrenching experience. Knowing this is based on a true story brings an even deeper level of care and love for this young boy whose intelligence brings him success. Never have I watched a film where the younger actor of a character was as equally skilled as the adult actor. Pawar, somehow in his young mind, gave us an impassioned and outstanding portrayal of a lost child with the tenacity to live.
Patel seamlessly takes over the part of Saroo as the adopted son of Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Patel creates a witty, charming and bright Saroo, exactly what we would have predicted under the care and love of this Australian couple. The subtleties needed to believably portray a young man struggling with his love of his adoptive parents and his need to know his roots is simply extraordinary.
Within the second half of the film, it is actually Kidman's small but exceptionally evocative scene that brings the film to an even higher level as she explains her decisions about adopting not only Saroo, but his "brother" as well.
The only weak spot to this film is Rooney Mara's role as Saroo's girlfriend, Lucy. Her character seems unnecessary and adds nothing to the plot or interest to the story. However, this small hiccup in the film doesn't take away from its power.
Extraordinary performances, particularly from young Pawar, Patel and Kidman, create a memorable and emotional story of family, identity and the need we all have to not only be loved, but to belong. Be sure to stick around for the credits to see actual footage from Saroo's life.