4 out of 5 stars.
It’s appropriately poignant that we don’t learn the significance of the title “Lion” until the end of the movie. For the end of the film marks the end of Saroo’s years long journey to find his birth family, a quest he pursued with the ferocity and determination often associated with the animal; and it’s at the end of the movie that he, and the audience, learns that he has been pronouncing his name wrong his whole life, that it is really “Sheru”—a name that translates to “lion.”
Saroo Brierley’s story sounds like fiction, but “Lion,” which is directed by Garth Davis, is based on a true story detailed in Brierley’s book “A Long Way Home.” The film opens in 1986, in a poor, rural small town in India. Five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives with his sister, his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). One night Saroo begs Guddu to take him to work with him, but when Saroo is too tired, Guddu leaves him on a bench at a train station, telling him to stay put and promising him he’ll be back soon. Time passes, and Saroo wanders on to an abandoned train, soon falling back asleep. When he wakes, the train is moving, and he has no idea where he is heading.
This half of the film details Saroo’s journey as he becomes lost and increasingly distant from his family. He ends up in Calcutta, thousands of miles from his home, where the citizens speak Bengali, not Hindi. He sleeps in the dirty streets, scrounges for food, and evades capture from officers and unsavory individuals, until he finally ends up in an orphanage. He is later adopted by a well-to-do Australian couple (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) and finds himself transported from poverty to a comfortable life in Tasmania.
The second half of the film is set twenty years later. An adult Saroo (Dev Patel) seems to have it all: he’s a good athlete, has promising career prospects, and a supportive girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara). But something at a party triggers memories of his former life and family. When a friend suggests that Saroo might be able to use a new bit of technology called Google Earth to find his hometown, he starts searching in secret, feeling guilty that his behavior might possibly be betraying the good life his adoptive family have shown him.
Saroo becomes gradually obsessed with his seemingly impossible quest, to the point where he begins neglecting his family, his job, and his general well-being, but he learns as much about his adoptive family as he does his birth family in the process. A year after he was adopted, Sue and John Brierley adopted another young Indian boy, Mantosh. But while Saroo was every much the model child, Mantosh was the opposite; whatever past he had before his adoption brought on severe mood swings and mental illness, to the point where he would begin hitting himself in the head and have to be subdued. But when adult Saroo mentions to an obviously stressed Sue that he’s sorry she couldn’t have children of her own, who give her a blank slate to start with as opposed to inheriting the pasts of him and Mantosh, Sue reveals that she could have had her own children, but chose to help a child already living on the Earth who needed a better life. It’s a moving scene that puts the whole concept of family into perspective for both Saroo and the audience.
Davis takes a rather uncomplicated approach to directing the film, focusing primarily on giving his actors the chance to shine and develop their characters through their performances. Pawar is simply adorable, but clearly also very talented. His big eyes are constantly taking in his environment; he never gives up, never cries, like most children likely would in his situation; he just keeps pressing on. He is a child, but we see a flash of heart-breaking maturity when, after being told in the orphanage that he is going to be adopted and will be leaving the country, he turns back to the worker and asks, “Did you really look for my mother?” Patel, who is probably still best remembered by many for his breakout role in the 2009 Best Picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire,” gives his best performance to date as adult Saroo. He takes his character through every stage of his emotional journey effortlessly, and helps us see his complex relationship with his family. He obviously cares about Mantosh very much, as he frequently checks up on him to make sure he’s ok, but he also hates what his brother’s behavior does to his mother. His ultimate reunion with his birth mother and simultaneous realization that this does not change what his adoptive family means to him is nothing short of tear-inducing. Kidman is also a standout as Sue, and the aforementioned scene between her and Patel could even win her an Oscar nomination.
The film does have some lovely cinematography that accentuates the differences between India and Australia. Davis, particularly with young Saroo in the first half of the film, uses a lot of long shots as opposed to close ups to better emphasize how lost and alone in the world Saroo is. He also makes use of an interesting device in the second half of the film. As Saroo becomes increasingly tortured by his quest to find his home, he begins seeing his brother Guddu almost everywhere he is goes, blurring the line between reality and fantasy. It makes for both a good illustration of Saroo’s mindset, but is also a more than fitting finale for the film.
Over the past few weeks, “Lion” has become the dark horse of the awards season, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a beautiful film of determination and family that deserves increased recognition. Most people probably can’t relate to becoming lost as a child and later adopted and sent to another country, but everyone can connect in some way to the theme that everyone has an identity to discover, and everyone has a home to go back to.
Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13.