You know that helplessly choked up feeling you get watching a TV news feature or documentary special about parents and children reuniting after years or decades apart? That’s the fuel that powers “Lion,” a classically emotional story accentuated by astute craftsmanship.
The journey of Saroo — played in the first half of the film by young Sunny Pawar and in the latter half by Dev Patel — awakens our innermost empathy. Director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies take great patience in nurturing the deeply human core of Saroo Brierly’s powerful true story.
At five years old, Saroo was separated from his family in a small Indian village and accidentally boarded a train that shipped him to Calcutta, practically another country away. Forced to develop street smarts to survive, Saroo narrowly escapes potentially worse trauma (kidnapping, child labor) and eventually ends up in an orphanage, where he is later adopted by Austalian couple John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierly. As an adult taking hotel management courses in Melbourne, Saroo begins to reconnect with memories of his distant past, and becomes overwhelmingly compelled to find his family of origin.
Especially in the first half of the film, the storytelling is almost effortless. Warmth comes instantly watching Saroo interact with his mother (Priyanka Bose), sister and older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), and seeing him mistakenly separated from his well-meaning brother and then navigating the treacherous streets of Calcutta is heart-wrenching. Davies’ script leaves us helplessly watching Saroo struggle and survive, taking its time to really tell that story rather than just provide the essential information. The move is a crudely emotional wallop, the kind that wins audiences’ hearts.
The simplicity of the childhood narrative also gives Davis a lot of wiggle room as a director. He and cinematographer Greig Fraser create so much atmosphere, making India dark and scary or beautiful and spiritual. When Saroo first arrives in Calcutta, lost in a mass of train station crowds, the scale, vibrancy and scariness put you there physically and emotionally with Saroo. They also capture his childlike wonder along with his skepticism. No knock on young Pawar’s remarkable performance either.
The large portion screen time dedicated to Saroo’s childhood journey magnifies the film’s ultimate catharsis, but it also creates a sort of partition between the first and second halves. Davies spends so much time acquainting us with young Saroo that we have to get to know him again as an adult despite being well into the throes of the narrative. The storytelling gets a little tougher here with this jump in time and the inevitable course of the plot leading Saroo to find his family.
Patel plays a critical role in bridging our emotional experience watching young Saroo to his character’s journey of rediscovering long-forgotten memories and becoming somewhat obsessively driven to reconnect and make peace with his cloudy past. He hits all the emotional beats of the story and we end up in complete sync with him at every one of those junctures as he discovers new information or makes a crucial realization. Kidman does the same thing, but in unexpected ways because of how wrapped up we get in Saroo’s story. She gives the film a left-field punch that brings it added dimension.
The only emotional challenge that the film struggles with helping us access why Saroo is so private about his search, as well as his inability to let others (namely his adoptive parents) in. A few points of contention between him and girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) don’t carry any kind of emotional weight despite their importance to the narrative of pushing Saroo to where he needs to be.
The private nature of Saroo’s search demands the best of not only Patel, but also Davis and editor Alexander de Franceschi, who weave together Google Earth searches with childhood flashbacks and Patel’s emotional responses. It’s an ambitious attempt to facilitate drama from the unexciting experience of a man searching on a computer for his childhood village, but there’s a lot of visual symbolism connected to it and, of course, an emotional component.
With emotion as the central cog of everything that makes it tick, “Lion” envelops the audience in a predictable yet no less moving way. What elevate the story beyond that human appeal are the production values. They work in concert with one another to enhance the artistic value of a viewing experience that almost exclusively engages the heart. For those who prefer films target their feelings above all else, “Lion” is one you can’t miss – for everyone else, it’s a worthwhile watch.
Directed by Garth Davis
Written by Luke Davies, Saroo Brierly (book)
Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara