Conventional wisdom says we should not judge a book by its cover.  Speaking in terms of cinema, the same philosophy applies to movie posters.  Consider the one for “Lion,” a much-talked-about contender for recognition in the upcoming award show season.

Its theatrical release poster juxtaposes a split image of protagonist Saroo Brierly and his girlfriend, Lucy, with a shot of younger Saroo and his brother, Guddu Khan, walking side-by-side on train tracks.  The arrangement is geometrically pleasing, though I’m not certain the selected stills best represent the film’s unsettling elements of “Slumdog Millionaire” mixed with a conclusion borrowed from “The Odyssey.”

Garth Davis’s  Australian-American-British drama works well because of its excellent cast.  However, if there was a textbook example on how a film’s score can dampen its story like a towel repeatedly plunged into the Caspian Sea, it would be Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann’s here.

But let’s start with the good, because every intention in this long but eventually fulfilling film unfolds by the purity of its subject.  Dev Patel’s rewarding portrayal of Saroo is worth the wait in close to the second half.  His charming younger counterpart, Sunny Pawar, keeps the film’s first grueling hour buoyant in innocence assaulted by the loss.      

While traveling with his brother (Abhishek Bharate), Saroo gets separated from him on a train platform, commencing an ongoing test for survival in a hostile, unsheltered India.  The first half of the film follows poor Saroo, just five-years-old, as he roams train stations and unknown city streets to find his family, all while carrying nothing but his bed, a slab of cardboard (and even that’s not permanent).

Davis sticks his audience with Saroo from the beginning.  We ache for him when all we want to do is protect him from the merciless world he wanders, even when he is welcomed in by adoptive parents, Sue and John (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, giving two of the film’s most personable performances).   Over twenty years later, a now-Australian-accented Saroo experiences emotional flashbacks of the family he lost, and starts obsessively searching for his roots via Google Earth.   

If this sounds heavy, it is.  Bertelmann and O’Halloran’s score unintentionally fails the pulse of the film’s heart when we’re almost through watching Pawar hold his own against the adults acting against his character.  The sadness of a displaced child nearly dodging pimps, police, and death does not make for a particularly upbeat first 70 minutes.  

Then again, there is no sugar-coating Saroo’s struggles.  Davies’s adapted screenplay draws from the real Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose’s non-fiction piece, “A Long Way Home.”  That story’s sincerity salvages Saroo’s at-times unwatchable situations, and Davis repays our attention with Greg Fraser’s stunning landscape shots of Kolkata, India and Australia.  

Davis also has a gift for subtly.  When we first meet Patel’s Saroo with Kidman and Wenham in an Australian restaurant, they sit at a table for four.  Prior to this flash-forward, John and Sue adopted another abandoned Indian boy, Mantosh Brierley (Divian Ladwa), a year after they welcomed Saroo, but Mantosh experiences consistent and sometimes violent mental breakdowns.  

At first it looks as though the fourth chair is a hint the Brierley’s returned Mantosh to the adoption agency when Saroo was still young.  Then, with each line teasing the vacancy of the fourth chair, the situation blooms with such satisfaction, it made me wish Davis would have practiced more of this quiet execution in the longer moments of older Saroo pacing and staring at his makeshift memory map.        

Patel and Kidman deserve every bit of praise they’ve received for their outstanding performances.  I’ll echo the compliments of other critics in saying their onscreen relationship as mother and son might be the best one I’ve seen at the movies this year.  Though Kidman’s not featured on the film’s poster, we at least see Saroo, young and older.  By the way, the title’s meaning is another reason to hang on until the end.  Do not cop out early, because the best part of the entire 118 minutes waits in the final 20.  Bring tissues, and do not be surprised when an audible, “Ah ha,” leaves your lips.           

By the way, the title’s meaning is another reason to hang on until the end.  Do not cop out early, because the best part of the entire 118 minutes waits in the final 20.  Bring tissues, and do not be surprised when an audible, “Ah ha,” leaves your lips.