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Middleburg Day 1: "Lion" is a winner

By Nathaniel R

Sheila Johnson welcomes you!Salamander

Middleburg Film Festival, now in its fourth year and just an hour outside of Washington DC, is a rising festival to watch. Most of the festival's big events take place at the Salamander Resort and Spa which sits on 340 beautiful acres. The rooms are gorgeous -- I even have a nice little terrace to sit on while typing up these diaries for you. In short, this is a destination festival rather than a 'drop in for a film or two or two after work' type big city festival. Emma Stone and Damien Chazelle are coming into town for La La Land and other luminaries appear for their films, too.

The festival, which has an Oscar hopeful heavy lineup, was founded by the African-American billionaire Sheila Johnson (co-founder of BET network) who welcomed us to the opening night screening. The event was in the resort's huge ballroom and I was surprised to be very happy and pleased with the screen size and sound since non-traditional venues at regional festivals can sometimes present challenges.

 The opening night film was the lost child / adoption drama Lion. True to early buzz we've heard the movie is quite wonderful...

The story, as you've surely heard or seen in the trailer, is true. When he was five little Saroo (Sunny Pawar in a remarkable film debut - he's also the cutest little kid you'll ever see)  was separated from his brother one night in India, trapped on a moving train, and ended up thousands of miles from his home and poor illiterate mother (the beautiful Priyanka Bose in a short but impactful performance). Essentially now a homeless orphan on the dangerous streets of Calcutta he is eventually adopted by a kindly Australian couple. The second half of the movie finds adult Saroo (Dev Patel) increasingly estranged from his mother (Nicole Kidman) and college girlfriend (Rooney Mara) while obsessively attempting to find the birth family he lost as a child.

Saroo's life story, remarkably cinematic already, became a best-seller and made it to screen swiftly for which we should be grateful. Where many true family dramas with uplifting elements like this lean in with sentiment, hold-your-hand scoring, and cushioning tears and smiles, Lion wants authenticity of experience. It defines itself with harder and trickier territory like emotional confusion, the landmines of family dynamics, and the sensations of childhood wonder and smallness and memory. The first half of the picture, without much dialogue, makes great use of the sensitive visual skills of Director Garth Davis (this is his first feature but he already wowed us with episodes of Top of the Lake) and the great cinematography Grieg Fraser (who is bizarrely still waiting for Oscar attention despite extraordinary lensing on films like Zero Dark Thirty, and Bright Star). The picture is maybe too frontloaded (the first half is where it's at with the second half sketchier, possibly because it's so obsessive about the first half) but the acting delivers in the final stretch.

At one point late in the picture Saroo's girlfriend (Rooney Mara), tries to convince him to talk to his adoptive mother about his journey, bluntly stating "You underestimate her." A remarkable follow up scene has Saroo finally listening to his mother and her journey which so changed his. He's stunned and you will be too if you thought Nicole Kidman might phone in a stock "longsuffering mother" role or if you think Lion will be a disposable "inspirational" picture, made only with awards in mind. It's a dusty beauty that loves these families and their tough journeys hard and well.

Oscar Chances: Yes, all categories. But watch out particularly for Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actress (Nicole - get that fourth nomination, girl!)

Dev Patel as Saroo. And the real life Saroo at the Middleburg Film Festival


With @jazzt21 & @korymello at Middleburg Film Festival. P.S. LION is amazing

A photo posted by Nathaniel R (@nathaniel_tfe) on Oct 20, 2016 at 7:30pm PDT


P.S. After the picture I met up with my friend Jazz Tangcay from Awards Daily for the afterparty. We talked briefly to Saroo himself who was in town for the opening. He doesn't look a thing like Dev Patel (but little Sunny does look a lot like little Saroo from photos) but he was obviously very fond of his acting counterpart. We asked if his mother was fond of hers, too? We were hoping to hear that the real life Susan Bierley was a secret Nicole Kidman stan and freaking out at her good fortune but she is apparently not a movie buff -- she wasn't thrown by having this particular goddess play her but did find the whole experience of watching your own story on screen with actors to be surreal. 

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Reader Comments (24)

weren't you supposed to update the Oscar charts by 16th October?

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

yes but life got in the way. as soon as i'm back from this festival...

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Is that natural not to know of Nicole.Send her Moulin Rouge and To Die For at once.

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

Is it wrong that it feels good to know Nicole is in a solid, mainstream film and giving a great performance? I always feel like it gives her the clout to go and do three or four auteur flicks.

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTom M

This is a much higher grade than I expected. Always good when films come out better than their trailers

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

So pleased to hear we have another legendary Kidman performance. Few actresses take such thrill in delivering unique performances. Her talent is a rare talent only further elevated by her work ethic.

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterChris James

Judging by these comments better plaster Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, and the rest of the white faces all over the posters and trailer so these people will actually watch this movie smh

"Much higher grade than expected"

Must've thought it was a "Bollywood" movie I'm sure. I think we all know how much everyone on this site (contributors and commenters) hate every aspect of Indians being involved with movies regardless if it's an actual "Indian film" or not.

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRahul

Rahul - that's why I hope Patel can get nominated. It'd look bad if only the white actress gets nominated for a movie about an Indian person after the #OscarsSoWhite outrage.

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

What about Patel as supporting? I've been reading that and it looks like a big fat category fraud. Does he have a shot (even in leading)?

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Rahul -- i have no idea where you're getting "everyone hates Indian movies" from.

Cal -- i mean he is the lead but since he's not in the first 45 minutes I guess that's why they're going to try it.

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Yay! I'm so glad this film is getting good reviews. I can't wait to see it.

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEz

I'm very excited for this movie, so its great to see that it has your stamp of approval. I feel like non-black talent of color sometimes gets overlooked within the diversity conversation, so it would be great if Patel could score a nomination/traction alongside the likes of Davis, Henson, Harris, Ali and Washington.

And of course I'm excited to see Nicole score that elusive 4th nod.

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

Not to directly rebut, but this site turned me onto Monsoon Wedding, and I don't know if I ever properly gave thanks.

October 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Could we possibly say that the character Dev Patel is playing is a lead character, but technically the actor is supporting?

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

A Briony in Atonement situation?

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

LOL at Rahul. You really zinged us there.

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I like indian movies so much. And some Bollywood movies aren't lesser than some international productions set in India, even if I'm not talking about LION

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

I'm confused by Rahul's comment. I've never seen anything remotely close to what he is describing on this site.

Anyway, I'm very excited to hear that Nicole gives a great performance is a movie with serious Oscar chances.

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTom

I am not Indian and I have no trouble seeing a good movie... I do not care who is in it... for me movies mean enjoyment... not like a hen pecking through crap as so may of these bloggers do.

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Lion is totally the Philomena of 2016, isn't it?

I remember seeing a video (a TED Talk maybe?) of Saroo's story a few years back and being mesmerized. Glad to see that his tale is getting a worthwhile cinematic treatment.

October 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

I saw Lion too yesterday (Rome Film Fest) and Patel actually appears in the film for the first time after the 56th minute, not the 45th (even Kidman is seen before him at 48). And I wouldn't call a supporting placement a category fraud ultimately.

October 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCédric

Saroo is the lead character, but when it comes down to it Sunny has more screentime (and arguably the more emotional scenes) than Dev. I'd love to see Dev nominated though (highly recommend The Man Who Knew Infinity - the film is okay, but Dev is wonderful in it).

October 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

On of the best reviews, right on the spot. Actually I enjoyed the movie.

December 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHemant

Julie 2 Movie (2017): Trailer, Release Date, Cast and Songs

September 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJulie 2 Movie Trailer

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