Oscar-contender ‘Lion’ purrs with positive messages about motherhood & family

This true story of loss, belonging, identity, and family ties is deserving of its many nominations.

Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar in Lion, 2016. The Weinstein Company | MoviestillsDB.com

When the Academy unveiled its Oscar nominations last month, most of the movies were, more or less, known—at least to movie lovers. Sure, maybe we hadn’t all seen La La Land, but we knew it was a musical with Ryan Gosling and that girl from Easy A and Birdman. And while hardly anyone saw Moonlight, many still knew it was an artsy and challenging coming-of-age story with heavy themes of race and sexuality. Arrival is that Amy Adam’s sci-fi flick and Hidden Figures is about the early space program.

And then we came to Lion.

Many didn’t know much about Lion before it was nominated for six Oscars, and many still don’t—but they should. First because it’s a great movie, but also because it’s about family—the power, beauty and poignancy of family, even when that family looks a little different.

Lion’s deceptively simple (and true) story focuses on a little boy named Saroo, who was just 5 years old when he was accidentally swept away from his family in poor, rural India. He fell asleep on a deserted train in the middle of the night and when he woke up again and the train was barreling down the rails, Saroo was literally a thousand miles from home. He didn’t know enough about his family or village to ever find his way home.

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Sunny Pawar in Lion, 2016. The Weinstein Company | MoviestillsDB.com

The story could have ended badly. Saroo could have lived out his childhood on the streets as so many others did (and do). He could have fallen into a human trafficking ring, which he narrowly avoided. Instead, Saroo was adopted by Australians—Sue and John Brierley (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). They loved him dearly and unequivocally, and gave him every advantage. Saroo grew up in a home free of want and filled with affection.

Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Sunny Pawar in Lion, 2016. The Weinstein Company | MoviestillsDB.com

But as Saroo becomes a young man (caution, some major spoilers ahead), he remembers his other family, the family he unknowingly left behind 20 years before. He imagines his Indian mother still searching for him, how she and his brother may be racked with guilt and grief. With the help of Google Earth, he sets out to find them again—all while keeping his quest secret from his adoptive parents. He says he doesn’t want to seem “ungrateful.”

Sunny Pawar, Priyanka Rose in Lion, 2016. The Weinstein Company | MoviestillsDB.com

The pain, and ultimately the beauty, of Lion is in a simple-but-sad misunderstanding. See, Saroo gets it in his head that his first family is his “real” one. He believes the Brierleys adopted him and his brother, Mantosh) because they couldn’t have a “real” family of their own. The family they’ve made for themselves in Australia is a family of second choices.

David Wenham, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman in Lion, 2016. The Weinstein Company | MoviestillsDB.com

Saroo believes that for a time. But his mother—his adoptive mother—never does. She tells Saroo that he and his brother were not second choices. They were her first.

“We wanted the two of you,” she says. “That’s what we wanted. We wanted the two of you in our lives.”

Eventually, Saroo tells Sue about his quest to find his missing mother and brother. Is Sue upset? Angry? Sad? Not at all. Instead, she encourages Saroo. “I really hope she’s there,” she says of Saroo’s Indian mother. “She needs to see how beautiful you are.”

Saroo is the product of two families—both who love him dearly.

Lion, based on Saroo’s real-life story chronicled in his book A Long Way Home, does a wonderful job at tugging on our heartstrings. We feel for the young Saroo as he wanders the streets of India, lost and alone. We understand his desire as a man to connect again with the family he left behind, even as we grieve over some of the missteps he makes along the way.

But this story is also about motherhood. Even as we debate what impacts us and our children more, “nature” or “nurture,” Lion answers that question with “both.” Saroo is the product of two families—both who love him dearly. Both mothers have given him something irreplaceable.

A mother’s love is, perhaps, the nearest reflection we see of God’s love for us—that tireless, fierce, unmatched love. And a mother who adopts is a grand reflection of such love. We’re not born into God’s family, we’re grafted in. We’re not his second choice; we’re his first.

Paul Asay
Paul Asay

Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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