The last few weeks have been a pleasant palate cleanser for me as my usual fare of action films, adventure flicks, comedy pieces and supernatural tales has been replaced with a steady stream of small personal dramas and based-on-true-events stories. It's sort of like eating your fruits and vegetables again after too much candy and ice cream.
Recent films such as “Collateral Beauty,” “Hidden Figures” and “Fences” have taken us back to basics to remind us the cinematic arts can be used to tell close, personal stories about the human condition. Today's subject, “Lion,” focuses intently on one facet of that condition – the longing for home. It's not a perfect film, but it's personal and emotional and worth watching at least once.
In 1985, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is living in a poor village in western India, scraping out a living with his mother, brother and sister. He insists on accompanying his brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), when he goes off to do some night work. A tired Saroo winds up falling asleep in an empty train and wakes up to find it rolling down the rails and he is locked inside.
Two days later, the train comes to a stop nearly 1,000 miles away in Calcutta. Alone and not speaking the local Bengali language, Saroo ekes out a living on the streets before winding up in an orphanage. With him being unable to pronounce the name of his town correctly or name his mother, officials have no choice but to put him up for adoption. He is taken in by an Australian couple, John Brierley (David Wenham) and his wife, Sue (Nicole Kidman).
Years later, an older Saroo (Dev Patel) is attending classes in Melbourne. But an encounter with other Indian students leaves him longing for home. And so he begins the impossible search for his family using only the barest of clues that he remembers from his childhood.
It's a fascinating, not to mention heartwarming story, based on the book by the real-life Saroo Brierley. But I would have to say the film's missteps are probably caused by the transition from book to screen. For example, the first act – roughly from Saroo becoming lost to our introduction to Patel's adult version – takes up an incredible amount of time. Though the narrative heart of the story is his search for his family after being missing for more than two decades, we wander with the younger Saroo on the streets of Calcutta, seemingly rather aimlessly. There are small incidents that hint at a greater whole most likely found in the book, but just serve to make this first part drag on.
The same could be said for Saroo's relationship with his girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara), and troubled adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa). They come and go in the script and you can't help but feel there are more to these relationships that wasn't able to survive the jump from page to screen.
But these are storytelling flaws, while the other gems of filmmaking – emotional resonance, acting and visual imagery – are all there. Watching Saroo learn to survive on the streets is almost a documentary on the urban poor in India, which I found fascinating, even if we are waiting for the actual narrative to move on.
I also rather enjoyed director Garth Davis' visual style, as he puts onto screen the visuals in Saroo's mind's eye of his home village, brother and mother. It blurs the line between reality and fantasy a bit, but I believed it really struck at the heart of what his main character was feeling and, in turn, what we were supposed to feel.
The cast all do a solid job, and that includes Pawar and Bharate. Though they don't speak a lick of English throughout the movie, their young innocence and fraternal bond is perhaps the emotional centerpiece of the entire film. If the whole movie had been done in subtitles and only about Saroo becoming lost and eventually found by his brother a couple days later, I think those two would still have made it work.
“Lion” is a small film (and I say that in all the best ways) for the discerning cinephile. It wasn't my favorite movie of the last few weeks, but it's definitely not one I regret seeing. A few storytelling mistakes aside, it could be just the thing for someone looking for a real story before we start diving into the ice cream and candy again.
David Rookhuyzen is a Green Valley News reporter and movie aficionado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org