REVIEW: Lion [2016]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 118 minutes | Release Date: November 25th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director(s): Garth Davis
Writer(s): Luke Davies / Saroo Brierley (book A Long Way Home)

“Did you really look for my mum?”

The Weinstein Company is lucky Google hasn’t moved into the film production game yet like tech giant Amazon (unless you count YouTube Red) or else they may not have secured the rights to one of 2016’s most upliftingly heart-wrenching movies of the year in Lion. We’re probably lucky too because had Google found a way to produce the true story of Saroo Brierley‘s improbable search themselves, a lot more time may have been spent on Google Earth’s role rather than the more pressing and emotional themes of family and love at its core. Just because the mapping software gave Saroo the tools to believe he could find the mother and brother he lost twenty plus years previously doesn’t mean the true takeaway isn’t his complex sense of hope.

If like me you were wondering how Dev Patel (who plays the grown-up version of Saroo) was considered a “supporting actor” after watching the film’s trailer, the answer is pretty straightforward: the trailer masks writer Luke Davies and director Garth Davis‘ construction. What’s interesting is that I think I would have liked the film more if it adhered to the advertisement’s notion of flashback storytelling. Had it introduced Patel and his search from the start before rewinding as he told his harrowing tale, I wouldn’t have kept feeling a sense of impatience. I was sold on the search. I came to watch Saroo reconcile the feelings he has with his First World parents (Nicole Kidman‘s Sue and David Wenham‘s John) and girlfriend (Rooney Mara‘s Lucy) against his past.

So while it’s not disappointing to spend so much time with five-year old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) in India, it is frustrating. I’d like to blame my personal expectations, but the onus does actually belong to The Weinstein Company for their marketing decision. Put some on the filmmakers too for deciding to tell this saga linearly. It’s one thing to have a prologue that eases us into the movie by preparing us for what’s to come. It’s another to provide two very distinct plots even if they both concern the same character. But had we met Patel and understood his pain from the beginning we’d be more inclined to see the past in that context rather than as its own chapter to eventually be cannibalized by the second.

As it plays now, the transition from past to present is jarring. We spend an hour connecting with this little boy (Pawar’s debut performance is unforgettable) as he endures the hardships of a lost child epidemic in the second most populated nation on Earth (four times bigger than number three, America). We move from Calcutta’s chaotic train stations where passengers are literally packed in like sardines to the tragic false hope of supposedly compassionate souls. Saroo’s intelligence working out that certain details of his escalating situation aren’t correct save him from a horrible fate many can’t avoid. We watch street kids get scooped up while the police look away and ultimately acknowledge how even the sympathizers to his plight have their own motives putting self-interest ahead of his.

It’s a thrilling drama—a young boy forced to place a real life in the rearview to accept the new one thrust upon him. The emotional resonance of his inability to communicate (he speaks Hindi while those around him use Bengali) and lack of knowledge due to age (he only knows his mother as Mum) invests us in his evolution. We want to watch Sue and John help him assimilate to Australia. We crave to witness the tear-filled moment when Saroo tells his adoptive mother what he remembers. There’s even the addition of an adopted brother (Keshav Jadhav‘s troubled Mantosh) for more affecting drama and yet it’s all practically ignored. While glossing over this transition works for the film as a whole, it diminishes the opening act’s power.

Well, Lion is more than just this first hour and as such should be judged that way too. This is why I can only marginally fault it for jerking my attention around a bit. While breaking Saroo’s childhood apart into flashbacks would have delivered its worth more efficiently, providing it as a standalone half still ensures that the information is absorbed. I therefore credit Patel’s performance for grabbing me in a way that allows what came before to fade into a distant memory. His older Saroo has a fun and easy-going demeanor despite the sadness behind his eyes. That tragic childhood remains, but he’s excelled beyond it. He’s spent so long more-or-less rejecting his heritage that the flood of sentiment triggered by an Indian cookie must wreck him.

I would say the first half is “better-made” technically, but the second half possesses the gravitas to be remembered as revelatory. It’s here that survival is no longer a physical exercise—it’s become psychological. Suddenly guilt has formed in the pit of Saroo’s stomach because deep down he knows he was blessed to receive everything Sue and John provided him. But how can you call yourself blessed knowing that your mother (Priyanka Bose‘s Kamla), brother (Abhishek Bharate‘s Guddu), and sister (Khushi Solanki‘s Shekila) were made to suffer the arduous life you escaped? It wasn’t his fault that he was plucked from the streets to lead this privileged life with collegiate aspirations. But forgetting that those he once loved weren’t makes it seem as though the choice was his.

There’s no end to the revelations that come as Saroo continuously remembers and learns. Memories filtered through the mind of a child have a way of leading him astray, but they provide a compass nevertheless. His guilt towards his biological family ultimately pushes him to forsake his adoptive one as an anger builds to isolate himself from all happiness until he can be sure those in India know he’s alive. This drives Mara’s Lucy to be more than merely the supportive girlfriend and Kidman’s Sue to be more than the stereotypical “white savior” (although her admission of pure selflessness does take on a somewhat “white savior” bent). This allows both women to dig deep and make their brief roles meaningful in a way only their talents could.

I understand calling Patel “supporting” due to his receiving the same screen time as Pawar, but this is very much his film. Their two Saroos are more co-leads than anything else with the young boy giving the seasoned veteran a run for his money. But while we feel for five-year old Saroo’s plight exposing the dark alleys of Indian over-population, it’s twenty-year old Saroo that we understand with empathy as a lost soul with nowhere to turn. He’s a man who’s internalized everything and made excuses in order to extricate himself from the love he’s earned rather than let them in to help. His pain is unavoidable and his hope inspiring. To witness what happens on all fronts is to brace for an inevitably tearful release.

[1] Dev Patel Stars in LION. Photo: Mark Rogers © Long Way Home Productions 2015
[2] Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar star in LION. Photo: Mark Rogers © Long Way Home Productions 2015
[3] Dev Patel and Rooney Mara star in LION. Photo: Mark Rogers © Long Way Home Productions 2015

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