Sides of a Horn


A sight we may not be able to see for very much longer.

(2018) Drama Short (Whitlow Park) Wellie Nzuza, Sheldon Marema, Ayanda Seoka, Dimpho Motloung, Motheo Mope, Petrus Maduna, Mpho Noko, Johnny Kaledi, Emmanuel Castis, Khanyisile Sebolai, Tshepiso Molati, Tonny Sebolai, Keorapetse Matji. Directed by Toby Wosskow

 

The African rhinoceros is one of the oldest species still extant on the planet, around 50 million years or so. If current estimates hold, the animal will be extinct in the wild within ten years. Much of that is due to a belief in certain Asian nations that the powdered rhino horn brings virility in a male. We are all about our dicks, after all. For that there’s a good chance that we will see them exist only in zoos and wildlife parks in our lifetimes.

This short is about Dumi (Nzuza) who works as a ranger for a wildlife protection agency in South Africa. He has come home to his village to visit his sister who is dying of a wasting disease. Her husband Sello (Marema) works as a wood cutter and doesn’t make enough to afford to take his wife to a doctor. Dumi offers to help out when he gets paid next week but that could be too late for the dying woman. Sello will do anything to protect his family; Dumi will do anything to protect his land. The two are headed on a collision course and don’t even know it.

The short 17-minute film has a powerful story that shows a surprisingly balanced view of a thorny problem that envelops modern Africa. On the one hand, they are fighting for their land and their heritage, trying to protect the wildlife which is native and part of a delicately balanced ecology. On the other hand, they are fighting terrible poverty in which even the most basic services are out of reach for a significant percentage of the population. Exacerbating everything is simple human greed – powdered rhino horn fetches lavish prices in Asia.

The cinematography by Nico Aguilar is beyond breathtaking. Filming was done in villages and game preserves where the rhino poaching issue is an everyday affair. As gripping as the story is, however, the pacing felt a little rushed, as if Wosskow were in a hurry to get this out in the world. I can’t say as I blame him if that is the case; every minute counts for a species that time is literally ticking down on.

The film was executive produced by Sir Richard Branson and is available free of charge in various places around the net a few of which are listed below in addition to the film’s website which can be reached by clicking on the picture above. In many ways, the rhino is almost incidental to the story onscreen which is a very human one although it remains distinctly at the center of the tale. When a wild rhino makes its appearance in the film, you can’t help but admire the magnificence of a creature which at the moment desperately needs our help to survive.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is beautiful. Approaches the issues of poaching in South Africa from the points of view of both the conservationist and the poacher. The story is an important one and the dramatic tension is high.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story feels a bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A poacher can get paid the equivalent of US $3,000 for a single rhino horn, enough to support his family for a full year.
BEYOND THE THEATER: African Wildlife Foundation, Vimeo, Virgin, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forgotten Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Hot Doug’s: The Movie

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The Long Shadow


It’s a long road we’ve been walking and a long road yet to walk.

(2017) Documentary (Passion River) Frances Causey, John Powell, Leon F. Litwack, La Tonya Lawson-Jones, Ian Harvey Lopez, Sally Holst, Jody Allen, Gerald Horne, Paul Kivel, Anne Conkling, Mike Church, Tim Duckenfield, John Adams, Nadine Stark Sims, Karen Alexander, Lorne Hammond, Richard Rothstein, Erica Tanks, Bill Blair, Maureen Gosling, Laura Willis, Judy Sims, Yolanda Wells.  Directed by Frances Causey and Maureen Gosling

 

Race relations remain a defining issue in the United States. From slavery down to Jim Crow and into the Black Lives Matter movement today, America has been formed going all the way back to its founding by white supremacy.

Filmmaker and journalist Frances Causey grew up in a privileged neighborhood in Wilmington, North Carolina to prosperous parents. She had little contact with African-Americans beyond those that worked for the family, but she had eyes that could see and she was fully aware that her black neighbors weren’t treated the same way; they lived in terrible poverty, were prevented from drinking at the same water fountains as she, and were looked down upon as inferior to the white privileged class. It bothered her then and continues to bother her now

She is directly descended from Virginia lawyer and founding father Edmund Pendleton, who essentially wrote the verbiage into the Constitution that institutionalized slavery in the South. Because there were far more slaves in the South and far fewer whites, Pendleton came up with the 3/5 of a person compromise that gave the South disproportionate power in the Federal government for nearly a century.

Causey goes on to discuss the economic benefits of slavery that powered the engine of the slave trade; how Wall Street was essentially created to facilitate it and how the legacy of slavery informs our policies and politics now 150 years after the end of th Civil War. African Americans may have been emancipated but they continue to be victims of inequality.

Throughout Causey interjects commentary about various aspects, such as what happened to those runaway slaves who fled to Canada, an enlightened plantation owner who gradually freed his slaves and the difference it made to their descendants today. We see her horrified reaction to the massacre in the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston by a white supremacist and we see her genuine affection for her former nanny and the grown up children of her caregiver.

Causey utilizes a goodly number of academics to give some context to history and some of them, particularly John Powell (an expert on the effects of slavery on American society), historian Jody Allen (somewhat incongruously interviewed on the serene campus of the College of William and Mary considering the subject) and historian Leon Litwack who won a Pulitzer Prize on the subject. However some of the other talking heads can be a bit dry. Again, those with a personal story to tell are far more effective than those coming from a strictly academic standpoint.

The film is at its best when Causey is looking through her highly personal connection to white privilege and racism. There is no doubt she is aiming her film for white audiences in an effort to make them understand a history most of them don’t know or don’t want to know. Most of the final two thirds is really a more broad view of the reverberations of racism and violence through American history. I thought the first third was much more successful; the story of her ancestry and her experience growing up in the deep south are far more personal and relatable than the academic exercise that followed. However, that doesn’t man that interesting questions aren’t raised. For example, slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1772. Could the southern founding fathers have chosen to leave British rule in order to continue slavery here and keep the economic engine of the South running?

The movie was filmed before the 2016 presidential election which makes it in many ways all the more timely but in dire need of a new chapter that brings it all together with the current expressions of white nationalism that has reared its ugly head since then. Even in the days when the film was about to be released there were instances of hate crimes (a white racist opening fire on African-Americans in a Louisville Kroger). The movie does make for a good history lesson but quite frankly much of this material is covered elsewhere, particularly in Ava DuVernay’s compelling Netflix documentary 13th.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that slavery warped the soul of this nation and continues to. Just the extent of the damage that continues to be done is something even the most progressive of white liberals (myself included) fail to understand. It’s information that African-Americans know only all too well and if there ever is going to be real change and moving forward in this country, white people will have to not only understand it but own it as well.

REASONS TO GO: The archival photos and drawings are extremely effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film begins by connecting Causey to the slavery issue on a personal level and then veers away from that into a standard PBS-like documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing and occasionally graphic photos of brutalized slaves and lynchings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Causey worked as a journalist at CNN for 14 years; it was the events in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown that galvanized her to make this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Outlawed

Respeto


Rapping is worldwide, son.

(2017) Drama (Arkeofilms) Abra, Dido de la Paz, Loonie, Kate Alejandrino, Silverster Bagadiong, Brian Arda, Thea Yrastorza, Nor Domingo, Yves Bagadion, Chai Fonacier. Directed by Treb Monteras II

The Philippines have had a rough go of it. After enduring years of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos, it seemed like they’d finally gotten past that and were on the right track – until they elected Rodrigo Duterte. Now it’s the bad old days all over again.

In the poverty-stricken Pandacan district of Manila, young Hendrix (Abra) aspires to be a rapper. He lives with his sister Connie (Yrastorza) and her drug-dealing boyfriend Mando (Arda). When Hendrix takes money from Mando without permission to use as an entry fee into a rap battle (and which he loses somewhat ignominiously), Hendrix and his posse Betchai (Fonacier) and Payaso (Bagadion) attempt to rob a local bookstore which ends up badly. Hendrix is ordered to help clean up the mess he made. Doc (de la Paz), the proprietor, is a poet himself and wrote protest poems during the Marcos regime. The two form an odd bond, as Doc becomes a mentor to the young would-be rapper.

There are parallels in their lives; Doc had to watch helplessly while his family was abused by Marcos’ thugs while Hendrix was forced to watch impotently while the object of his adolescent desire (Alejandrino) is raped by his biggest rival (Loonie). The frustrations of poverty in a crime-ridden world of drug lords, apathy and hopelessness lead to a shocking conclusion that even veteran moviegoers might not see coming.

First, the pluses; I was impressed with the social commentary here and frankly a little bit surprised; Duterte doesn’t exactly have a reputation of tolerating criticism very well. The film nonetheless got critical acclaim on the overseas festival circuit and even a brief theatrical release in the Philippines. I would expect that being compared to the rule of Marcos probably doesn’t sit well with Duterte.

Young Abra is also a very charismatic performer who on top of being ridiculously handsome also has a natural intensity that makes me think he could have a very distinguished career ahead of him. He keeps the audience’s attention whenever he’s on screen (which is most of the time). He stands out well above most of the rest of the cast, even de la Paz who has a couple of really good moments with the young actor.

Where there are pluses, there are often minuses and this being the debut feature for Monteras there are some of those. The most glaring of these is that in any ways this feels like an urban rap drama from the 1990s; it has a lot of the same clichés and while the ending of the film really rescues it, the rest of the movie feels very much like we’ve seen it all before. The movie also starts out a little bit bumpy as the plot feels a bit disjointed. Finally, the friendship between Hendrix and Doc feels very forced and while the characters have a lot in common, I never get the sense that Hendrix has the emotional maturity to befriend someone so much older. It just doesn’t feel natural.

Folks who aren’t into rap should be warned that there’s an awful lot of it on the soundtrack although to my definitely unpracticed ear it sounded pretty authentic and pretty good. This will be playing the New York Asian Film Festival on the 24th of July; while there are no immediate plans for an American release this may well eventually get something if a fearless distributor is willing to take a chance on it. There is certainly a market for this kind of film and even though I found it very flawed there is a lot that’s positive about it as well, if for nothing else to learn more about Filipino culture in the era of Duterte and Abra could well be a star in the making.

REASONS TO GO: Abra has a compelling screen presence.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie feels a bit dated. The friendship between Hendrix and Doc doesn’t feel organic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references, a rape and some other disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the rap battle sequences, actual underground Pinoy rappers are used.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 8 Mile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Age of Blood

The Workers Cup


All for one moment of glory.

(2018) Documentary (Passion River) Kenneth Kwesi, Padam Kumal, David Kwesi, Samuel Alabi Ago, Grahame McCaig, Sebastian, Carlton, Paul, Umesh. Directed by Adam Sobel

 

Although Americans tend to believe that the Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event in the world, the reality is that the World Cup is bigger and draws more viewers – even more so than the Olympics. Like the Olympics, the World Cup occurs every four years. The 2022 edition will take place in Qatar, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, and the oil-rich nation is constructing a mammoth stadium as well as additional buildings, roads and infrastructure, to accommodate the influx of tourists who will arrive for the games.

Much of the construction work is done by migrant workers imported mainly from Africa, and Asia. There are dozens of companies working on various projects having to do with the Cup; the governing body in Qatar that has been responsible for the World Cup activities decided to put on a tournament of teams representing 24 of the construction companies working on the facilities.

One of these companies, GCC, is the one that the filmmakers followed. Kenneth, 21, from Ghana would be the team captain. Lured to Qatar by a recruiting agent who claimed he would be playing professional soccer there (which turned out to be a lie), he works and dreams of getting the opportunity to play the sport professionally. Samuel from Kenya was a professional player but still couldn’t make ends meet so he went to Qatar to make more money working construction. Sebastian is an office worker for GCC from India who becomes the team manager.

In all, six men stories are told here but although the director asserts that this is a sports movie, most viewers won’t remember the tournament. It is the conditions that the workers are forced to live in that will stick with you. There’s an aerial shot of the Umm Salal Camp that is more reminiscent of a Prisoner of War camp to my eyes. It’s startling and a bit sickening as well.

The company has absolute control over the lives of their workers. They are not allowed to leave camp ad have to get permission to go anywhere, even to wire money back home or go out on a  date. The gleaming skyscrapers and beautiful malls are there in the capital but they are not for such as these; even the security guards aren’t allowed to be in the malls past 10am. This is literally slave labor paid a barely minimum wage. The workers can’t even choose to quit and go home; in one chilling scene, a worker is sent to the infirmary with a bad cut on his leg inflicted by another worker who wanted to go home and that was the only way he could think of being sent home.

The movie’s soccer scenes don’t really flow well with the rest of the movie; they are almost two separate movies weaved into one. Because there are so many subjects, we don’t really get to know any of them all that well so that while the subject matter should be riveting, the movie is less compelling than it might be.

REASONS TO GO: This is not so much about soccer as it is about imported workers.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the film is interesting but it really isn’t compelling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sports action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sobel was based in Qatar for five years producing pieces for CNN, the Guardian and other news outlets; this allowed him to gain extraordinary access to the laborers and the camps.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Great
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Soufra

Where is Kyra?


The face of Michelle Pfeiffer tells the whole story.

(2017) Drama (Great Point) Michelle Pfeiffer, Keifer Sutherland, Suzanne Shepherd, Sam Robards, Marc Menchaca, Babs Olusanmokun, Mauricio Ovalie, Tony Okungbowa, Celia Au, Gabe Fazio, Bradley W. Anderson, MaameYaa Boafo, Hubert Pont Du Jour, Joel Marsh Garland, Nimo Gandhi, Jorge Chapa, Elizabeth Evans. Directed by Andrew Dosunmu

 

“There but for the grace of God go I” is a phrase we use to describe the less fortunate. It’s a particularly apt phrase; most of the time what separates us from those who are destitute is good luck or good timing. Very few of those reading this now are much more than a paycheck or two away from economic disaster.

When it comes to those of a certain age who are poverty-stricken, we have a tendency to turn away our gaze. When a child is poor, we have sympathy. When an elderly person is poor, we have myopathy. We don’t see them; we don’t react the same way. Even when they are just 60 years old or thereabouts, the attitude is more like “tough luck – you must have done something to get yourself in that predicament.” Often, that isn’t the case.

That’s how it is for Kyra (Pfeiffer). She was hit by the double whammy of divorce and a lay-off at nearly the same time. Now she lives in Brooklyn with her elderly mother Ruth (Shepherd) who has some serious health problems. Kyra runs errands for her, helps bathe and feed her and take care of Ruth’s daily necessities all the while turning in application after application for work, any kind of work. There isn’t any though, not for a woman her age (about 60). They live a meager existence on Ruth’s social security and pension.

Then even that is gone. Ruth’s health eventually fails completely and one day Kyra finds her lifeless body in the living room. There are condolences of course but Kyra doesn’t have a lot of friends and as she sits back with mounting bills she wonders what in hell she is supposed to do. She sells what she can and is able from time to time to get work handing out flyers but considering her debt it’s nowhere near enough. She does meet a guy, Doug (Sutherland) who is a driver who dreams of one day having his own cab medallion license but until then he’s driving for other people and is barely making ends meet himself.

Kyra is desperate and desperate people do things that they ordinarily wouldn’t do. She’s stuck in the position of doing whatever she as to do to survive – and takes her down a road that she never thought she’d travel.

The movie is dark in a lot of different ways; first and foremost it is a dark subject dealing with things that most of us would rather not face. As we grow older, we grow less employable and no matter how much we contributed to society and the economy in our youth, once we get to that point we are expendable, cast aside drones who have outlived our usefulness. Kyra gives the impression of being a hard work (she certainly works hard at finding work) but she is not the type of worker employers are looking for – young and willing to do more for less pay. It’s a sadly common story and one most of us choose to ignore; it’s hard to consider that sooner or later we are at that same point in our lives that Kyra is in. We will all face the same obstacles as she and that, like all unpleasant truth, is something we tend to not want to think about.

Pfeiffer has always been one of the most beautiful women in the world and she remains so; only those who have been paying attention realize what a talented actress she is – she didn’t get an Oscar nomination for nothing. Kyra is perhaps the least glamorous role she’s ever played and not uncoincidentally this is legitimately the best performance of her career. Kyra is tightly wound and so Pfeiffer uses an economy of gesture, expression and dialogue to get across her anguish, her fear, her frustration and her desperation. There aren’t a lot of histrionics except in a couple of cases. Otherwise Pfeiffer gives a spare performance relying a great deal on the silent tools that an actor utilizes. It is work worthy of Oscar attention but that is so unlikely to happen that the odds don’t bear repeating so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

The movie has the advantage of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young but Young and Dosunmu make the odd choice of putting everything in room lighting that is dark – even the exterior shots seem to be done through a filter making everything look like late afternoon on a cloudy day. Young often frames the action through doorways and mirrors; we the audience become as Peeping Toms, observing uninvited the intimacies of Kyra’s life. The effect is unsettling and off-putting. I admire the creativity – I believe it is meant to illustrate the dreary darkness of Kyra’s life – but I question the practicality.

Also not working is the soundtrack. There is very little of it and generally what you hear is discordant and grating on the ears, like metal scraping against metal. It’s the kind of heavy metal that would make even a hardcore headbanger plug their ears. Again, one has to give props for the willingness of the filmmakers to go outside the box creatively but then one has to pay attention to the needs of the audience. Good intentions, questionable execution.

I’m giving this a mild recommendation for Pfeiffer’s extraordinary performance and the subject matter which is one Hollywood has been loath to tackle. I think if Dosunmu and company had handled this in a more straightforward manner they would have been far more effective in getting their point across. As it is they did make a movie that gives the viewer a lot to think about even if they don’t particularly want to.

REASONS TO GO: The subject matter is extremely timely. Pfeiffer delivers one of the best performances of her career.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is so underlit that it is often hard to see what is happening onscreen. The score, such as it is, is abrasive and eventually pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, adult themes and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is only the fourth time in her career that Pfeiffer has appeared as a brunette onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pursuit of Happyness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beirut

La Familia


Father and son are on the run.

(2017) Drama (Celluloid Dreams) Giovanni Garcia, Reggie Reyes, Kirvin Barrios, Indira Jimenez, Ninoska Silva, Vincente Quintero, Mariû Favaro, Dixon Dacosta, Tatiano Mabo, Alberto Gonzalez, Morris Merentes, Natacha Pérez, Luis Domingo Gonzalez, Sahara Alvarez, Jesus Rivas, Andy Duque, Miguel Angel Suárez, Franlys Diaz. Directed by Gustavo Rondón Córdova

The economic woes in Venezuela have brought that nation to the brink of collapse. What does that mean to those that live there however? For the wealthy, it’s pretty much business as usual. For the poor of Venezuela, the effects are devastating.

Pedro (Reyes) is poor. He’s a 12-year-old boy who doesn’t attend school which doesn’t seem to alarm anyone. He lives in one of the more impoverished districts in Caracas, the capital. His father Andreas (Garcia) is a day laborer, working whatever odd jobs he can find to squeak by. His mother is nowhere to be found; whether she is dead, deserted or divorced the movie never quite elaborates.

Pedro, essentially growing up without any supervision, runs around the streets with a group of kids, each trying to prove how much tougher they are than the rest. Pedro mostly pals around with Jonny, his best friend. One afternoon they are accosted by a kid with a gun who attempts to rob them of the cheap cell phone they found. Pedro, never one to take anything lying down, gets into a fight with the would-be robber. It ends badly for the young kid.

When Andreas finds out, he knows what he has to do; get the heck out of dodge. He knows that the kid that Pedro hurt has relatives who are in the gangs that run the ghetto, and they are going to make an example of both Pedro and his dad. Andreas takes a reluctant Pedro to a different part of the city and tries to earn as much money as he can so that they can get out of Caracas forever.

But that isn’t going to be easy. Pedro is headstrong and has zero respect for the work ethic of Andreas. For his part, Andreas is not above stealing some bottles of booze from the catered parties he works as a waiter at from time to time when his mostly construction work is done for the day to resell for a little extra cash but otherwise prefers to walk the straight and narrow, preferably crouched down under the radar. Pedro prefers to stand up straight and tall and take on all comers, bowing and scraping to nobody.

The two get along about as well as two brood bulls in a paddock full of cows. Pedro wants to go back to where he belongs; Andreas wants something better and knows he will never find it for himself. Something’s got to give.

This is a terrific character study in that both Andreas and Pedro are given richly developed personalities of the kind we rarely see in the movies anymore. Neither one is cliché and neither one is easily summed up. Neither Andreas nor Pedro can be put into a specific box; they are both complex and imperfect. Much of the realism of the film – which was filmed in some of the worst crime-ridden areas of Caracas – is owed to how well the two main characters are shaped.

Garcia, a celebrated stage actor in Venezuela who has done some memorable film roles as well, owns the screen. His gaze is that of a frightened lamb who knows the slaughterhouse is nearby. His eyes dart from place to place, but he seems to find peace and satisfaction in working hard. Eventually the joys of receiving a paycheck begin to affect Pedro who starts out as a tough guy but shows layers of depth as the film wears on.

.The tone here is pretty bleak, not just for Pedro and Andreas but for Venezuela as well. While Córdova isn’t pointing specific fingers here, there is no escaping that this is a parable for his country from the corruption to the crime to the hopelessness. The realism inherent in this film is sobering and smacks of truth. I can’t speak directly to the situation in Venezuela but I know poverty and how it affects of the souls of those afflicted by it and that’s where this film soars. That this is a first feature for Córdova is impressive; no doubt so long as he doesn’t get into hot water in his native land he is going to be a major talent coming out of Latin America. This movie is a triumph from beginning to end.

REASONS TO GO: The father-son dynamic is caught perfectly. The life lessons here are hard-earned – as they are in real life.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this film to be too bleak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity as well as sexual content and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reyes was discovered by casting personnel for the film while playing soccer in a middle class neighborhood in Caracas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Running Scared
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Lion


Dev Patel contemplates the blue screen of death.

Dev Patel contemplates the blue screen of death.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose, Divian Ladwa, Tanishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Deepti Naval, Keshav Jadhav, Rohini Kargalya, Saroo Brierley, Sue Brierley, John Brierley, Menik Gooneratne, Madhukar Narlwade, Emilie Cocquerel. Directed by Garth Davis

 

We know who we are largely because we know where we came from. We know who raised us, who gave us life. For those who don’t know the latter, there are always questions – they are almost forced to wonder who they really are or where they came from.

Young Saroo (Pawar) lives in a small village in Hindi India with his mother (Bose) and his older brother Guddu (Bharate). They live in extreme poverty with Guddu and Saroo finding means of stealing coal and reselling it so that they can help put food on the table, particularly the delectable treats that Saroo craves. At night, Guddu goes to the train yard without Saroo who at five years old is too young although Saroo himself doesn’t think that’s true. He wheedles and he whines until Guddu finally reluctantly agrees to take him.

They get to the station and Guddu leaves Saroo on the platform while he investigates possibilities to where the two of them can find some coal. While he’s gone, Saroo gets sleepy – it’s way past his bedtime – and in a bit of a fog wanders onto a train where he can sleep more comfortably. When he wakes up, the train is moving – and the station by his home is long behind him. There is nobody else on board and nobody to hear his cries for help; the train is being relocated to Kolkata (what used to be called Calcutta). Once he gets there, he is as lost as a human being can be; he doesn’t speak Bengali, the language that is spoken there. He narrowly avoids being kidnapped by a child slave labor gang and eventually gets picked up by the authorities after days on the street.

Returning him to his home soon proves impossible; he doesn’t know the name of his village, or even the name of his mother (what five year old knows beyond “Mommy”?) and he is eventually put up for adoption. He gets lucky; a kind-hearted Australian couple – John (Wenham) and Sue (Kidman) Brierley take him into their Tasmanian home and raise him as their own, along with a second Indian orphan named Mantosh (Jadhav).

Years pass. Saroo (Patel) and Mantosh (Ladwa) have grown up; Saroo is attending university in Melbourne majoring in hotel management, while Mantosh has had a much more difficult time adjusting, becoming a drug addict and is often confrontational with his parents and adopted brother. Saroo considers John and Sue his parents and loves them with all his heart but at a party one night at the apartment of a student of Indian descent takes him back to his childhood and leads him on a quest to find his original home and family. That quest becomes something of an obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Mara) who is supportive, and his standing at the school. He hasn’t told his adoptive parents about his mission; he fears it will break his mother’s heart. Using the then-new Google Earth on his laptop, he embarks on the seemingly hopeless task of finding his way back, but there’s no guarantee his family will even be there in the unlikely event that he does find his village – and considering how large India is and how the vast the train system, it will take years to find the right station with the right water tower if he finds it at all.

This true story, based on a book by the real Saroo Brierley (who appears at the end of the movie in footage detailing the end of his search along with his parents), is absolutely compelling and heart-warming. The first part of the movie, showing the five-year-old Saroo’s journey, has little dialogue and beautiful images – the very first scene in the film depicts young Saroo surrounded by butterflies. The countryside of rural India is juxtaposed with the urban squalor of Kolkata and makes for essential cinema. Part of the reason for this is Sunny Pawar who provides a sensational performance. He acts with his face, with his eyes – something you really can’t teach – unlike a lot of child actors who try too hard to act and ultimately come off as inauthentic. Pawar is nothing but authentic.

Patel is similarly sensational, having garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor and is likely to receive serious Oscar consideration. This is nothing short of a star-making performance; the young actor has given notice that he can ascend to the next level and is in fact likely to. Saroo isn’t always pleasant in the movie; like many obsessed people, he sacrifices current relationships and dreams to scratch that itch. Basically though he is a character we root for even when he’s shutting his supporting girlfriend out.

Kidman, who chooses to play the part of Sue without glamour, is also likely to receive Supporting Actress consideration for the upcoming Oscars. It’s the kind of performance that makes you wish she was getting more screen time – there’s a scene where she confesses her fears to Saroo that is absolutely mesmerizing. She’s gone from being one of the most beautiful women in the world to a talented actress who has compiled an enviable record of mind-blowing performances. She’s become an actress whose movies I look forward to no matter what the subject.

The movie succeeds on nearly every level even though it does kind of lose its way in the middle a little bit. The ending, even though you can predict what’s coming, will absolutely floor you and to be honest there’s a component of the ending that will bring tears to your eyes in an absolute gangbuster of an emotional payoff. I can’t recommend this movie enough.

REASONS TO GO: The story packs an emotional wallop and the payoff at the end is considerable. Patel, Kidman and Ladwa give terrific performances. Sunny Pawar gives a surprisingly powerful performance amid some wonderful cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a little bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the events may be a little rough for sensitive children to watch; there’s also a bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Lucy character played by Rooney Mara is not based on a specific person but is rather an amalgam of Saroo’s real life girlfriends during the period covered by the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warchild
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Assassin’s Creed