Lion is a mild success, one that will warm the heart but won’t offer much food for thought.
For heartwarming true stories to transcend sentimentalism, the journey must be more powerful than the destination. Whether it’s a famous historical event or merely an incredible human-interest story, viewers often know the conclusion before they walk into the theater, and they pay the price of admission in order to see how it will all unfold. With a film like Lion, based off a book written by Indian-born Australian Saroo Brierley about his journey to retrace his roots, we know that he’s going to find his way back home, especially when promotion for the film plays up the significance of his 25-year absence. While Garth Davis’s directorial debut deserves praise for its moving portrayal of how young Saroo became lost, and for giving viewers a satisfying resolution, the quest to discover a path home merely hits all the expected notes and can’t maintain the poignancy of its first act.
What makes Saroo’s task so difficult 25 years after the fact is that all memories of his poor, rural Indian hometown were filtered through the brain of a young child. At the age of five, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) travels by train with his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), to a nearby city and, exhausted from the trip, rests on the vacant platform. When Guddu doesn’t return, Saroo looks for his brother on an idle train car, where he eventually drifts off to sleep. As he awakes, Saroo finds the train speeding across the countryside, and before he’s able to escape the train car, the five-year-old has traveled nearly 1,000 miles from home to an overcrowded, Bengali-speaking city where few people know what to make of a little boy communicating in Hindi.
After living for a spell as a street urchin, and dodging a few close calls with malevolently-minded adults, Saroo lands in an orphanage. The town he says he’s from doesn’t seem to appear on any maps, and his memory of his mother’s name is simply “Mum,” so efforts to find his family are futile. He’s adopted by an adoring Tasmanian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and, for the first time in a long time, life is good for the boy, even as his new parents adopt another, more troubled Indian boy. But then the film skips ahead 20 years, leaving out a huge swath of fertile narrative terrain, and we find an adult Saroo (Dev Patel) leaving Tasmania for Melbourne to attend school. When memory of his childhood misadventure is jogged by the presence of an Indian delicacy he’d yearned to acquire with his brother all those years ago, the long-haired Saroo is encouraged by friends and his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) to use the newly-developed Google Earth to try to track down the village he once called home. Saroo’s quest becomes an obsession, and the contrivances that accompany portrayed dark-nights-of-the-soul ensue.
Lion errs most in never giving us a sense of what kind of person adult Saroo turned out to be. His interactions with his parents and problematic brother (Divian Ladwa) feel perfunctory, and the eventual outflow of emotions with his ailing adoptive mother come off largely forced. We know Saroo simply as a man fixated on finding his birthmother, which may be understandable given the circumstances, but it doesn’t make for a particularly compelling character, especially when progress eventually seems to be made through dumb luck alone. But the strength of young Saroo’s ordeal (Pawar deserves heaps of credit for his portrayal of the contemplative, wide-eyed youth) coupled with an admittedly affecting conclusion, make Lion a mild success, one that will warm the heart but won’t offer much food for thought.