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'Lion': Dev Patel at his soulful 'Slumdog' best

Newcomer Sunny Pawar and Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel play the same character – both brilliantly – in director Garth Davis' feature debut, Lion, a stunning and heartbreaking drama about a 5-year-old Indian boy who goes missing from his family, only to find them again more than 20 years later.

Adapted from Saroo Brierley's best-selling 2014 memoir, A Long Way Home, the film recounts the Indian Australian businessman's amazing journey to track down his birth family in India. It opens Christmas Day.

The movie is neatly divided into two parts. The first, with Pawar as the young Saroo, is a brutally poetic exercise imbued with the spirit of the great Indian master Satyajit Ray, whose pictures thrum with the daily buzz of ordinary people.

In the opening scene, two young boys jump onto a moving train. It's twilight. The boys hang off the side as they make their way toward the locomotive. Big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), who is barely 10 or 11, snatches up pieces of coal, which he throws down to 5-year-old Saroo, a tiny, wiry ball of energy.

When a uniformed cop approaches, the boys jump off, laughing. Sure, they're having fun. But this is no game: The boys won't eat unless they can scrape together enough coal to sell at the market.

Born into abject poverty in the slums of Khandwa in central India, Guddu and Saroo live with their sister and their mother, Kamla (Priyanka Bose). Kamla has been abandoned by her husband and makes money moving rocks at construction sites while her eldest sweeps the railway tracks at the train station.

After a nap, Saroo takes shelter in an empty train carriage. That's when the horror begins. Two days later, he finds himself alone and lost in Calcutta, a city 1,500 miles away from home where he's unable to speak the local dialect.

Child actor Pawar is extraordinary as Saroo during his terrifying odyssey, and Davis portrays the streets of Calcutta, teeming with homeless children and adults, as if they were one of the rings of hell from Dante's Inferno.

It's a shocking testament to a culture divided by gaping disparities in income and social station, where pubic services such as police, child welfare, and schools don't function for the poor.

The second half of the film isn't as explosive as the first. I'm not sure that would be possible.

Saroo, now played by Patel, has grown up a happy Australian boy. A seemingly well-adjusted young professional, he doesn't give his Indian past a second thought. But one day, he comes across the familiar smell of an Indian sweet he loved as a child, and he's reduced to tears. His personality cracks and crashes as his memories come rushing back.

Patel gives a soulful and moving performance, acquitting himself well in a tough role. Nicole Kidman is haunting as his adoptive mom, Sue Brierley, a deeply religious depressive. Rooney Mara adds air and light as Saroo's optimistic girlfriend, Lucy, who encourages him to search for his biological family.

Davis keeps things fresh with scenes that explore the family dynamics at the Brierley household and does a fine job portraying Saroo and Lucy's romance, rocked by the madness that grips Saroo when his memories return. The film falters only in its depiction of that breakdown, which comes across as too maudlin.

Brierley's story is remarkable: Once he decided to look for his birth family, he scoured images on Google Earth for landmarks that seemed familiar until he found the house where he was born.

Lion celebrates the human will and the human need to find meaning and connection in life. If the final scenes don't have you blubbering, your humanity may need some fine-tuning.