Commentary

A Family Reunited In Google's "Homeward Bound"

This week, man. My football team continued on its season-long quest to boost opponents' self-esteem, the deli guy misheard a request for tuna as "tofu," a bungled Java update temporarily robbed me of access to my favorite time-waster and the postal service couldn't handle the task of ferrying my sister's birthday card to a destination 35 miles away in fewer than four days. Collectively, these misfortunes left me feeling sad and small. To the multitudes reading this dispatch from mud huts in sub-Saharan villages ravaged by malaria, I thank you for keeping me in your thoughts.

As I often do during moments of acute personal trial, I immersed myself in work, hoping that any one of the many righteous titans of corporate rectitude might unveil a piece of content that would deliver me out of this existential funk. Wouldn't you know it: one of them did.

No, I mean that. A brand video legitimately lifted my sagging spirits. Why, yes, everything's swell at home. Why do you ask?

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One generally doesn't associate the self-proclaimed do-no-evil doers at Google with content that reduces manly man-men to blubbering heaps; hell, one generally doesn't associate them with content at all. Yet "Homeward Bound," which relates how a 30-something businessman used Google Maps to help him find his lost birth family, floored me. It's a mini-masterwork of storytelling and one that doesn't pound viewers over the head with a melodrama mallet - which, given the source material, would have been the natural approach.

The businessman, Saroo Brierley, fell asleep on a stationary train in India when he was five years old and awoke hundreds of miles away from home. Eventually he was taken in by an orphanage and adopted by a family from Australia. A few decades later, he used Google Maps to hone his time-worn memories of landmarks and "flashes of the places [he] used to go" and, miraculously, found his way home.

That paragraph reduces Brierley’s story to a pitch for a Lifetime telemovie; one could argue that the clip's three-minute retelling of it is similarly reductive. Nonetheless, "Homeward Bound" works because it keeps its pathos in check. Yes, the visuals blur in a transparent attempt to liken them to the narrator's own clouded memory, and yes, it is set to the strains of a plinky piano soundtrack ("more A-minor = more depth of emotion" - every sad-video scorer ever). But Google does something here that, with each new clip that comes our way, feels more and more revolutionary: it gets out of the way.

The video features Google Maps screen shots - at times, prominently. But those shots aren't referenced in Brierley's voiceover, nor does the camera linger on them beyond a few brief instants. Instead, "Homeward Bound" makes the case for technology in general - Google's, Apple's, whoever's - as a uniting force, rather than as the disruptive one that it's often depicted as being. Just as technology can be used to solicit opinions on the new Kindle or locate a mob-recommended public toilet, it can be used to restore the most primal of bonds, that of mother and child. Late in the clip, after the viewer learns about the improbably joyous resolution to his story, Brierley says, "Everything we have in the world is [at] the tap of a button, but you've got to have the will and determination." If that's not a rallying cry for our fractured, distracted times, I don't know what is.

Meanwhile, for other brands that look at "Homeward Bound" and immediately begin spitballing ideas to land a similar emotional haymaker - good luck with that. As much as brand-aware viewers have come to expect big stories with big emotional arcs, ("okay, Fritos, you're on the clock. MOVE me. Make me FEEL SOMETHING DEEPLY"), histories like Brierley's are rare. That blob of Colgate somebody half-consciously jets into his mouth tomorrow morning almost certainly isn't going to trigger a Proustian epiphany, you know? The takeaway for brands with touchy-feely ambitions, then, is to tread carefully. One person's life-affirming inspirationalism is another's transparently manipulative pabulum.

"Homeward Bound" gets it right, resisting the urge to subvert plainspoken sentiment in the interest of brand glory or mawkish emotion. I defy you to watch "Homeward Bound" and come away from the experience feeling something other than joy and awe. Go ahead, try and fight it. You will lose.
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