Director Gareth Davis presents the true story of Saroo Brierley’s long journey home as a relatable coming-of-age search for meaning.
Every night I imagine that I’m walking those streets home and I know every single step of the way, and I whisper in her ear, “I’m here.”
Lion’s central axiom is this: we can never find out who we are going to be without first discovering who we were. The film checks all the proverbial boxes a story about defining one’s past should: it’s heartfelt, tragic, joyous, frightening, and ultimately, satisfying – but the direction and breathable scenes in which the audience has time to connect and reflect on the main characters’ decisions elevate the material from sweet biopic to exceptional character examination.
Five year-old Saroo (Sunny Parwar) spends his days stealing coal with this older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to help feed his family in a remote town in India; their mother labors collecting rocks on an unnamed mountain to put food on the table, rarely eating herself so that her children may sustain. One early morning after their mother has gone to work, the boys set out to find odd jobs of their own and are subsequently separated. Saroo finds himself on a train bound for Kolkata – nearly 930 miles from home. Further complicating matters, when the train finally stops, Saroo speaks Hindi, and cannot understand the local Bengali – he is unable to find his hometown, his family, or completely communicate how and where he became lost. The normal journey-film trials befall young Saroo before he is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). As an adult, Saroo (Dev Patel) is convinced to search for his family by his girlfriend Lucy (the breathtaking, as always, Rooney Mara) and thus begin his long journey home.
Lion is a film about human connection and the profound need in all of us to define our place in the world by exploring our whole story. Very simply, as much as we are different, how deeply we are still connected by that need. Nicole Kidman is given a nice moment by way of an expository monologue that could only be delivered by a talent like hers; Mara serves as Saroo’s hope for the future but also the catalyst for exploring his roots. Contributing the kind of performance she gave in Carol, Mara says more when she is not speaking; her chemistry with Dev Patel is undeniable. But it is Patel that serves as Lion’s true triumph, grounding the older Saroo in reality and keeping the audience connected to his story in a way that goes beyond the usual “feel-good” fare.
Central motifs of mud, water, and food appear as further examples of that grounding, bringing Saroo’s memories to visceral life. Highly emotional acts are connected often with food; whenever Saroo encounters change, there is always water to wash away the old; further, when he is at the height of happiness, there is always mud there to warn us of the coming water to pull him back to despair. Davis works with cinematographer Grieg Fraser to frame in the film so that the world — seemingly gigantic and frightening to young, lost Saroo — is at once small and inviting, open to possibilities as he gets older and connects to others. But when he alienates those that love him, his memories become his torment as he imagines the fear and pain of those left behind. Then the world is a scary place again, and he is a man possessed by his pain in wide shots of endless seas and rocky landscapes.
For the purists, there is a bit to decry. In reality, the real Saroo Brierley had two biological brothers – combined into one character in the film for simplicity’s sake. Moreover, I find it difficult to believe that Saroo never searched for his family prior to the popularity of Google Earth. Right at the moment Saroo’s life seems to be perfect, circumstance intervenes to remind you you’re watching a movie, and one that requires a little suspension of disbelief. Yet like all the best movies, there’s magic here. The screenplay (written by Luke Davies, adapted from Brierley’s book A Long Way Home) is certainly elevated by Davis’s direction. Without the fine brushstrokes he applies to the written material, Lion might have been a very good film, forgotten directly after one viewing. With Davis and Patel, however, India and Australia become places of both dreams and nightmares. To Davies’ credit, the dialogue is mostly pure and absent of melodrama until warranted, and the film flows organically from Saroo’s childhood into adulthood.
Cynics might chalk this Weinstein Co.’s production as throwaway treacle, meant to provide tickets for award show season and to save Harvey and the boys from their recent obscurity, but that is only a surface interpretation of the material. Yes, Saroo Brierley’s story is the stuff of clickbait legend, and it could have been another The Finest Hours or Rudy – if not for Davis. His feature directorial debut shines brightly, signaling the coming of a new talent (he previously directed a documentary, a short, and has several television credits under his belt). You will hear so much about the La La Lands and Moonlights and Hidden Figures before the 2017 Oscars are handed out — but do not miss this film. Do not miss your chance to connect to a story like this on a human level. Yes, there are group hugs and tears and a bit of cavity-inducing jumping for joy –- however, right now in the world, don’t we all deserve a little sugar?