by Cassie Ochoa
What does family really mean? Lion, based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, takes on this topic by examining Saroo’s twenty-five year quest to find his way home. The majority of the film sets the stage, as a young Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar/Dev Patel) and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) enjoy a modest life in Khandwa before a fateful nap tears the family apart and sends Saroo to homelessness in Calcutta. He is eventually adopted by John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) and taken to Australia, but his yearning for his birth family never dies. This quest for family isn’t isolated to Lion, but it draws poignant ideas about what qualifies as family in 2016. Is family tied by blood or by something more abstract?
Interestingly enough, Lion isn’t the only 2016 film about a child searching for their parent. Finding Dory covers similar ground with Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a blue tang fish, suffering from short-term memory loss, who is ejected from her aquarium home and piped directly into the ocean. Despite her faulty memory, her emotional bond with her parents, as well as friends Nemo and Marlin, stays consistent. While the latter two are big parts of her life, Dory’s parents are still missing puzzle pieces that she is determined to find.
Based on a novel, Hunt for the Wilderpeople follows Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a juvenile delinquent, who gets stranded in the New Zealand outback with his parental guardian, Hec (Sam Neill). Originally adopted by Hec and his wife, Bella, Ricky flees after Bella’s death, when he is confronted with the possibility of reentering the system. In the wilderness, Hec and Ricky grow closer as father and son, while they attempt to evade Child Services. Along the way, Ricky sees a more typical family unit, which causes him to reflect upon his abandonment by his real mother. Ultimately, he ends up with a more conventional family, but he never abandons his dysfunctional father figure, Hec.
Largely overlooked this year, Midnight Special’s family dysfunction is peeled away layer by layer as the film proceeds. It details Roy (Michael Shannon) kidnapping his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a religious cult, in an attempt to save the life of the potential messiah. As Alton’s powers grow uncontrollable, his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) abandons him and Roy is forced to leave Alton behind. After the cult leaders mistreat the boy, Roy kidnaps him and the government learns about Alton’s powers. Midnight Special is a story about a man doing everything to reunite his family and save his son, regardless of the consequences.
As for Lion, it makes a case for a more hybrid variation on family. Saroo never hates his adopted family nor his current situation, but he yearns for the family that he was forced from. By the conclusion of the film, he bridges his past and his present beautifully. Lion stands alongside previous films on it’s stance on family; it’s not just the blood bond that makes a family, but it’s also love and compassion. 2016 was a year of great danger and risk, but also of strong familial bonds against all odds. Family, adopted or biological, is something worth protecting and preserving.