The desire to find out who we are and what we are meant to do is often invariably tied to where we come from and may be one of the universal traits that tie all of humanity together. John Quincy Adams summed it up succinctly: “who we are is who we were“. The collective actions of our past, where our roots are tied to, allow us to understand and better accept our journey through life. If any of this were lost or taken from us, it would mare us, possibly leaving us irrevocably broken. Which is why Garth Davis’s Lion feels like a film split at the seams.
The harrowing true journey of 5 year old Saroo Brierley (amazing newcomer Sunny Pawar), who, one fateful evening when accompanying his older brother Guddu to his night job, falls asleep on a railway platform, and in a fit of fear & confusion enters a train scheduled for decommission. When the train finally comes to a stop days later he is more than 16000 kilometer from his home, awash in the bustle of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Here he spends the next few months trying as best one can to merely stay alive, and away from several dire situations. Eventually, Saroo winds up in an orphanage and when no family of his can be found, he is adopted by the sweet Australian couple of Sue (a powerful Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham).
Flash forwarding 20 years to 2008, we meet an adult Sarro (fiercely portrayed now by Dev Patel) living in Hobart, Australia, who is so accustomed to his Australian upbringing that he has blocked most of his childhood out. He is accepted into a hotel management course where he meets his eventual girlfriend (Rooney Mara). Through the program he becomes friends with 3 desis also living in Australia, and during a dinner at one of their houses sees a jalebi (a popular Indian sweet). This triggers a wave of emotions, as well as memories, that lead Saroo to the realization that he isn’t actually from Kolkata, but has been lost from his true home for over 2 decades. After hearing about Google Earth, Saroo sets out on the long ad arduous task of searching for his hometown, armed only with vague memories and a cursor to guide him.
If all this should make for a stirring, inspiring tale, then why does it feel so distant and at odds with itself for most of the run time? Fault can mostly be blamed on the dissonance of the first 2 acts. At times they feel like entirely different movies. This would be more natural if it acted to reflect the state of mind Saroo inhabits, yet he is distant, even from the audience many times, when embodied by Patel.
For about half the film we follow young Saroo in the events leading up to and directly after his separation from his family. It’s here things truly sing and the audience is treated to some of the best that cinema can offer. Frame compositions shift between tight and wife, allowing us to see events from Saroo’s eyes, as well as the world writ large. The score by Dustin O’Halloran & Hauschka helps put punctuation on the emotional distress of events, and is moving in a way that words fail to elevate. Then there is Sunny Pawar. To say he is a revelation may border on hyperbole, but to understate how mesmerizing he is, would be a crime. His natural charisma radiates on the screen and are a reminder of how much stronger the 1st portion of the film is, as flashbacks start to intrude in the 2nd half. This isn’t to demean Dev Patel’s performance as the Adult Saroo, merely that the story doesn’t help contextualize his struggle. Suffering from PTSD, but closing off himself to everyone, save for his journey, Saroo comes off as mostly a jerk, denying those he loves a chance to help. It’s easy to see the parallels between the two adoptive children of the Brierley’s in this portion, but the movie never draws direct attention to this, even though a moment does present itself as both Saroo and Mantosh distance themselves from their parents. Worse for the ware is Rooney Mara, as Saroo’s put upon girlfriend. She isn’t given much of a character outside of supporting the journey, questioning the journey, and forgiving Saroo’s yo-yo treatment of her, once things come to a head in the final act.
Lionis in no way “bad” in the traditional sense. Cinematography is exceptional with an eye for landscape, along with framing that conveys claustrophobia and hopelessness at times. Acting is in good form across the board. The missteps that occur seems to mostly be script-bound, as the characterization of the adult Saroo sways wildly and borders on rendering the character unlikable, during a harrowing stretch. In a film that hinges on carrying about the journey that is taking place, this is tantamount and has to be nailed.
Decently affecting but needlessly manipulative, Lion trips over itself to move the audience. Events would have been better served as a documentary, specially given how recently they actually transpired, as the book itself was published in 2013. That the end credits confirm the power of non-fiction, with footage of the real Saroo returning to his hometown and the meeting of his two mothers, is more than telling.