This is the powerful true story being told in Lion, the feature debut from Australian director Garth Davis. The film follows the tribulations of young Saroo in India before detailing his attempts to find his home as an adult played by Dev Patel, and how his obsessive consumption with this affects his relationships with his girlfriend and his adopted family.
This is an amazing story, and a really uplifting one at that. And it’s really the interest in this story that drives a lot of the film. The intensity and utter hopelessness of Saroo navigating Calcutta at such a young age is completely felt; you share in his terror and vulnerability. In the second half of the film I was expecting Saroo’s journey home to be largely physical: going to India and retracing his roots from there. But keeping to the honesty of the story, the reality is on the surface much less exciting as he does a ton of online research until he finds his village on Google Earth. This sounds incredibly banal, but the movie makes it compelling by focussing on Saroo’s strained relationships as he does this. Though initially set on a promising path to hotel management at Canberra University, he devotes years to this goal, convinced his real family is out there missing him and we see in full the effect this has on the people who love him. In the case of his adoptive parents, he doesn’t even confide what he’s really up to. He’s aided in his online journey by recollecting memories, and I really like the editing choices here. Saroo has visions where he thinks he sees his mother or brother on a familiar terrain and as these memories flood back he ever more clearly narrows his search. Eventually when he walks the same paths he did as a kid he experiences these flashes more vividly. I can tell you from personal experience visiting childhood homes, that this is an accurate sensation captured really well in this movie.
Dev Patel’s been a rising star for a while now but here he really proves himself with his best performance yet. It’s obvious how important this character and story is to him, he’s putting his all into the role, pulling off a very good Aussie accent in the process. Sunny Pawar who plays the young Saroo is perfectly adorable and sympathetic. Nicole Kidman really shines as Sue, Saroo’s adoptive mother. Motherhood actually winds up being a significant theme in the film because of her performance. There’s one scene where she reveals to Saroo her motivations for adopting him as well as another less stable Indian boy, and it’s a terrific moment bordering on heart-wrenching. Rooney Mara plays Saroo’s girlfriend Lucy, an American student he meets at school. They have pretty good chemistry (Patel in particular is just so charming), but she feels like she was an entirely fictional creation. And it’s nice to see David Wenham again as Saroo’s adoptive father John.
Lion though is not without its flaws. On a technical level there’s nothing very interesting. The pacing is at times a little slow in the second half, but I might have preferred more development there because I liked the cast and journey so much in comparison to the first half which may have gone on a little too long. There’s only so much depressing, while harsh and detailed imagery of Indian poverty I can take. And that leads to perhaps the most notable thing -that this is very much a message film. It’s a good one, raising awareness of the horrible conditions in the slums of Calcutta and more importantly, how thousands of children like Saroo go missing in those big cities each year. However by the end it slightly crosses the line into being preachy. The film also goes to a few uncomfortable places, particularly hinting at the child sex trade, which I understand as necessary, but they feel tonally at odds with the latter half. Indeed these do feel like two separate movies, which is why I don’t mind that they’re one after the other rather than interspersed as some lesser director might attempt. But it’s still a little too dissonant.
That being said however, this film is especially impressive for a debut director, and features rightfully acclaimed performances from Kidman and Patel, some important themes, and quite a good soundtrack. Most of all Lion is an exceptionally good, legitimately emotional and potent story, that intrigues you long after the credits roll.