By Nathaniel R
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.
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.