Cast: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman
Director: Garth Davis
Writer: Luke Davies
When I saw Lion I thought of it as the quintessential ‘movie your mum will love’. It is heartrending film with a happy ending, it’s based on a true story, and it contains emotionally powerful moments that will open the floodgates for many viewers. Oftentimes tearjerkers can be rather manipulative, preying on the audience’s sentimentality and eschewing the kind of honesty and insight that makes for great storytelling. Telling an audience to feel sad for a little boy who is alone and lost and far away from home is easy. Allowing us to understand and feel the depth of that boy’s fear, despair and confusion both as a child and as an adult, the enormity and impossibility of the task facing him, and the ambivalent pain and guilt he feels as he goes behind his adoptive parents’ backs to try and find his home and family, that is much more difficult and much more rewarding.
The first half of the film follows five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who follows his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a job and is separated from him when he falls asleep on a train that he is unable to exit. When the train reaches its destination in Calcutta days later, Saroo finds himself lost in a strange city where he knows no one, doesn’t speak the language, and is unable to find a way back home. After months of struggling through hunger, poverty and nefarious characters with sinister intentions, Saroo ends up in an orphanage and before long is adopted by a generous and loving Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). Years later, when Saroo has grown up to become Dev Patel (star of the film’s spiritual sister Slumdog Millionaire), a party with his college classmates triggers a remembrance of his childhood and a longing to reconnect with his roots. Thus he embarks on a quest to search for his hometown and find his mother, brother and sister.
The film shows great patience in telling its story, opting to follow the young Saroo throughout its first half, trusting the audience not to lose interest before the first English word is spoken or the first recognisable, bankable star enters the plot. I’m glad that’s the approach they chose because this first half is easily the most compelling part of the film. One reason for this is Davis’ direction, where he adopts a Spielbergian child’s-eye-view to emphasise Saroo’s smallness and sense of feeling lost. Another is the performance of newcomer Sunny Pawar as the young boy, whose expressive face and childish energy allowed him to convey a wealth of emotions, even in scenes where he doesn’t speak a word, and to carry the entire film almost completely by himself (between Pawar, Jacob Tremblay and Millie Bobby Brown, it seems that child actors today are much better than they used to be). With all due respect to Patel, his performance would not have been half as affective if Pawar hadn’t been there to lay the groundwork for him.
The second half is when the plot really kicks off, as the now grown up Saroo becomes determined to find his home. While the scenes of him staring intently at Google Earth aren’t exactly what one might call cinematic, I found that I was emotionally invested enough by this point that I wanted to see where his search would lead him. It is during this portion of the plot that the film is able to raise some truly compelling questions. Questions not only concerning how Saroo can find his family, but also about whether he should. His adoptive parents have after all given him everything from unconditional love to a bright future. When Saroo makes the decision to search for his home he also makes the decision to keep it a secret from them, fearing that his pursuit would be regarded as a rejection of their love and generosity. The emotional payoff for this conflict comes in a remarkable scene where Sue, in a moment of profound vulnerability, explains to Saroo the exact reason why she and David decided to adopt him. Kidman, no doubt drawing from her own experiences as an adoptive mother, earns her Oscar nomination in this scene.
Lion is a thoroughly moving and sincere film. It can be sentimental, but only when it has earned the right to be. It is a film about identity and belonging and the estrangement that comes with not knowing who we are. Even with a family whom he loves, a place he can call home and a life of infinite possibilities, Saroo is still lost and it tears him up inside. So great is his anguish that he is ready to give up on his promising future as a hotel manager and his caring, supportive girlfriend Lucy (played by a largely underused Rooney Mara) in pursuit of the life he lost. The thought of the mother who stays up at night crying out for him and the brother who is tormented by the act of leaving him alone on that fateful night is more than he can bear. There is a stunning human story being told here and one would have to be inhuman not to be touched by it.