Watch Steve's supplemental video review at the bottom of the article
Garth Davis's Lion opens by showing two young brothers, Saroo (Sunny Pawar, a truly wonderful young actor) and Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), collecting coal off of a train with one another to assist their mother. Their family lives in an impoverished village in Indian and the laborer lifestyle of their mother has been more-or-less handed to them as well. One night, they venture into a subway to gather more, but Saroo is exhausted, insisting he sleep on the bench until his brother gets back. His brother says he will come back for him as soon as he can.
Saroo then awakes on the bench hours later with no sign of his brother. He winds up boarding a train only to be taken hundreds of kilometers away from his home to Calcutta after falling asleep in one of the cars. He doesn't understand the Bengali language, which causes great difficultly for those who try to help him. He lives in the streets or the occasional apartment until he is taken to the police, who exhaust efforts to find his mother and homeland - which he calls "Ganestalay" - with no luck. He's eventually adopted, along with Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav), another young Indian boy, by Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), where he is raised like he's their own.
When Saroo finally reaches college-age, now played by Dev Patel (Chappie) he moves to Melbourne to study hospitality. Soon after meeting his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) and her group of friends, he learns of Google Earth and decides to try and find his family by recalling the faint memories he still has of his childhood.
Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
6 January 2017
Steve's Grade: B
Lion is a quest story in what is revealed to be two significant ways. In the more conventional sense, it's a story of a young man trying to reconnect with his biological parents and his homeland by means of research and a literal trip back home to a village he can't remember. In another sense, it's a personal story, one that involves introspection in his current life and opportunity. Saroo comes to terms with being adopted, recognizing that it ultimately saved his life, but how it's also left a hole in the hearts of the people in his community, who aren't even sure he's still alive.
Saroo grapples with that during the final hour of Lion and screenwriter Luke Davies effectively illustrates it. Patel's Saroo isn't always very sympathetic, but he's understandable, especially when he pushes away Lucy and desperately tries to keep his brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) connected with the family. His story is heartbreaking, so much so that if you didn't know go into it knowing it was real, you probably would've thought it was just as incredulous as Argo.
Films have an amazing way of providing us with empathy or giving us a window in which to look at situations, characters, and lifestyles in which we've never been involved and likely never will. Through a textured, tender focus on character and quest, Davies and Davis effectively help keep schmaltz at bay to tell an immersive story with Lion, one of adopted children, who seem to never get their stories told. By throwing us into Saroo's troubled situation from the very beginning, there's a lovely, natural connection that we, the viewers, get to build with him as he embarks on his journey. While it's hard to watch at times, it's never manipulative nor too sentimental, even when the score becomes a bit too involved with the events on-screen.
Lion isn't too far beyond the usual sentimental affair we get during the Oscar season (last year it was the still-very good Brooklyn), yet it never lets itself fall victim to that tag. It's simply an uplifting story well-told that even those far-removed from the circumstances of Saroo or even the selfless characters of Sue and John can find resonance with; it's as democratic of a film as they come and that somewhat miraculously doesn't work against it.
I might also just be a bit too happy that I didn't hear the Phillip Phillips' song "Home" at any point during the film, even when I most expected to.