Release: Christmas Day 2016
Written by: Luke Davies
Directed by: Garth Davis
Lion operates on behalf of non-profit organizations across the globe endeavoring to end the epidemic of child homelessness in developing nations. It is an earnest, emotionally charged exploration of a life less ordinary, simultaneously a delicate and powerful epic that should give hope to others who find themselves similarly mourning the disappearance of a loved one.
This is the story of Saroo Brierley who became separated from his biological mother in Khandwa when he boarded and fell asleep on an empty train that took him nearly a thousand miles across the Indian continent. After months of surviving on the streets of Kolkata — sleeping under anything that fended off downpours and dodging bearded kidnappers — Saroo was taken in by a shelter for lost and missing children before being moved into the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption. Saroo’s fortunes changed when the Brierleys, a middle-class Australian family, took him under their wing and showed him a new life in Hobart, the capital city of the Aussie isle of Tasmania. Twenty-five years later — and this is the part where you might just assume Australian director Garth Davis’ feature debut has finally succumbed to Hollywood formula — mother and son would be reunited.
When you break it down into its three distinctive movements, Lion (adapted from Saroo’s memoir A Long Way Home, published in 2015) really explores two miraculous happenings. His entire adult life may be considered a miracle in itself, but one of the film’s greatest achievements is the way it develops its perspective. It’s a rocky road we start off on to be sure and the obstacles come one after another, at an overwhelming rate. Too young to realize his entire life has effectively changed over the course of a nap, Saroo (portrayed by Sunny Pawar in a breathtaking debut performance) wanders around with wide eyes and tussled hair, calling his brother’s name until he eventually doesn’t have the energy anymore and becomes silenced by his helplessness, adrift in a sea of simultaneous possibility and impossibility.
Lion moves into its second half gracefully as we meet the Brierleys, a kind-hearted couple whose intentions are unquestionably pure. David Wenham plays John and Nicole Kidman plays wife Sue. We want to love them just for being, let alone the fact they rescue Saroo from fates unknown. This family in no time at all burrows deeply into your heart. Kidman made a believer out of me as the loving mother. Sue makes it clear she and her husband picked the boy because they loved him, not out of some sense of guilt or obligation. The Brierleys later adopt a second child, the more volatile and aggressive Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav/Divian Ladwa) whose background isn’t elucidated but as we watch him engage in self-destructive acts as a youngster and continue to alienate himself from his new family as he matures, once more we are reminded that Saroo is one of the lucky ones.
At least he is given the chance to mature into a well-balanced, amiable young adult — though no amount of positive reinforcement can stop him feeling burdened by the mystery of his childhood. No amount of love from his adoptive parents can rid him of this kind of emotional baggage. Even ambitions for a career in hospitality/hotel management aren’t enough to make him feel confident about himself as a person. Dev Patel, in a potentially career best performance, portrays Saroo as a kite without its tether. Despite being surrounded by the hustle and bustle of campus life, he looks as lost as he was as a child fending for himself on the streets. It is in Lion‘s final third where we watch a carefully constructed façade starting to crumble, threatening the future he is considering sharing with fellow student Lucy (Rooney Mara).
Lion is a curio in the sense that it uses product placement as a significant plot device — Google Earth as Saroo’s second savior. The popular geobrowser became instrumental in his quest to (re)discover his roots and here it plays just as crucial a role in the narrative as any human being. Saroo is informed about the program at a party he attends while studying in Melbourne, where he opens up to Lucy and some other close friends about his past. That conversation proves catalytic for Saroo’s own slide into self-destruction as he begins shunning friends, coworkers and even his adoptive parents and begins obsessing to an unhealthy degree about retracing his steps. A friend attempts dissuasion by telling him it would take a lifetime to search through all of the train stations in India. Lucy challenges him to face the reality of making it back there only to find nothing.
Lion is at its weakest when it delves into this phase of self-exile, meanwhile Saroo’s interactions with Lucy feel collectively more like a dalliance than a serious thing. But the movie never reduces the emotional weight or contrives Saroo’s journey such that we struggle to believe what we’re being shown. The whole enterprise rings authentic, and the film saves the biggest gut-punch for last. It’s the kind of ending the cynical have been conditioned not to trust. Lion isn’t afraid of wearing its heart on its sleeve, nor should it be. This is an incredible true story that could empower thousands of others who are similarly bereaved to keep hope alive. Lion is a hugely life-affirming film you do not want to miss, especially if your faith in humanity has started to wane as of late.
Recommendation: Exceptional, heartfelt performances complement a too-good-to-be-true story about determination, hope and familial love. The film impresses even more considering it is Garth Davis’ first foray into feature filmmaking. Lion is profound, not so much because of the way it makes you feel but because this is what really happened. An enriching, inspiring cinematic experience.
Running Time: 118 mins.
Quoted: “Do you have any idea what it’s like, how every day my real brother screams my name?”
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