LION (2016, Australia)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

LION (2016)
Director: Garth Davis
Cast: Sunny Pawar, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 84% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A five-year-old Indian boy is adopted by an Australian couple after getting lost hundreds of kilometers from home. 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.

It’s as if Charles Dickens came back to life and concocted the plot of Lion.

In 1986, in Central India, a young boy named Saroo, lives with his family, hovering on the knife edge between poverty and desperation.  He and his older brother, Guddu, steal coal and redeem it for two bags of milk.  Their mother asks where they got it, but they do not answer, and she tactfully does not press the question.  One day, Saroo begs Guddu to take him on a week-long job.  At the train station, Guddu leaves Saroo on a bench while he goes to make sure the job is still waiting.  Saroo dozes off, and when he awakes, the station is empty…and Guddu is nowhere to be found.  Saroo wanders onto a decommissioned train and curls up for another nap.  But when he wakes this time, the train has left the station far behind.  He winds up in Calcutta, 1,600 kilometers from his village, with no way to get home or contact his family.  (The end credits inform us that 80,000 children vanish in India every year.)

Plot-wise, there’s not much to distinguish Lion from any number of similar films.  The dreaded words “soap opera” came to mind as the movie progressed.  We get a nice little wrinkle when, after several months of wandering Calcutta and winding up in a government orphanage-slash-prison, Saroo is adopted by a loving Australian family, John and Sue Brierly (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman), who also adopt another Indian boy, Mantosh, two years after adopting Saroo.  Then we jump to 2008, Saroo is now a strapping young man (Dev Patel) who leaves home to go to university in Melbourne, but the unforgettable smell of a specific Indian pastry brings back memories of his childhood, and he decides to find the family he lost.

So, yeah, just another movie-of-the-week on your basic third-tier cable channel, right?  Not exactly.  What distinguishes Lion is its storytelling.  Just like in comedy, it’s all in the delivery.  This was director Garth Davis’s first feature film, but you wouldn’t know it.  The whole movie feels slick and polished.  The establishing or transitional shots between scenes are intentionally reminiscent of the new online research tool that was all the rage at the time: Google Earth.  It’s very subtle, but it’s there, like it was designed to not be noticed until the movie is almost over.

The performances from the adult cast are all great, but what stood out to me was the boy playing young Saroo.  His name is Sunny Pawar.  He was 8 years old during filming, but he is so small he looks 5 or 6.  His story, from introduction until he grows up into Dev Patel, occupies nearly half of the film’s running time, and during that time he must make us feel sorry for him, empathize with him, and root for him every step of the way.  In the hands of an experienced child actor, we might have viewed his performance as just that: a performance.  But Sunny was a non-actor when he was selected for this part, and that makes all the difference.  The look on his face when he finds himself lost is indescribably real.  There’s a scene where he is trying to make himself understood to a ticket agent (he speaks Hindi, but in Calcutta everyone speaks Bengali).  The adults try to move him out of the line, but for a brief instant, he gets furious and shoves the adult hands and bodies away from him.  The rage in that tiny face and in his body language was utterly convincing.  I think it was that moment when I felt I was watching something a little more elevated than a cable melodrama.

Although the story is a bit trite as far as movies go, there’s something to be said about the universality of its message.  There isn’t a soul who can watch Lion without completely understanding Saroo’s desire to find his real family, along with his desire to keep his adopted mother in the dark about his obsession.  I’m not a parent, but I know some close friends who went the adoption route, and I found myself thinking of them and their children, and how they might feel if they found out their kids were actively searching for their real parents.  Lion addresses this heartbreaking scenario in a marvelous scene between the adult Saroo and his mother, Sue, in which she reveals the real reason she decided to adopt.

Saroo’s girlfriend, Lucy, brings up a terrible, but probable, scenario: what if Saroo completes his search, finds his village, and travels to India…only to find his family isn’t there?  It’s been over 20 years.  He believes his mother and brother searched for him, but he can’t really know that for sure.  Maybe they moved away.  Maybe they’re dead.  Saroo doesn’t care.  For him, that chapter of his life must be closed one way or the other or he will feel lost and adrift for the rest of his life.  Closure is everything.

This is another one of those movies where, as an audience member, we’re put through the wringer for about 100 or so minutes so we can experience the full emotional impact of the film’s climax.  At some point, we can surmise that, yes, Saroo is eventually going to travel to India.  What he finds there, I would not DREAM of revealing.  I think it’s safe to say that many people I know would be reduced to tears by the time the final credits roll.  The finale justifies the overall melodramatic tone of the film, especially because of how well the damn thing was made.

Lion is one of the few true-blue melodramas that I would wholeheartedly recommend, even and especially to anyone who doesn’t think they like soap operas.  Dickens would have approved.

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