Lion
★★★☆☆

Based on the memoir A Long Way Home (2013) by Indian writer Saroo Brierley, Lion is the inspirational true story of how the author got lost on a train at five years old and taken thousands of kilometers across India, away from his home and family, to Calcutta. Unable to understand or speak the dialect, little Saroo must learn to survive the threats of homelessness and child sex trafficking, until he gets adopted by an Australian couple and taken to live a much different life than the one he was born to. While happy and well adjusted as an Aussie, Saroo dedicates much of his college years to searching Google-Earth for the place of his birth, using bits of memory he has kept. Director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies do such a meticulous job of chronicling every anxious, suspenseful stage of the first half of the movie we not only buy into it, we almost live it vicariously along with the young Saroo. Not surprisingly the film loses some of its potency when its focus shifts to the adult Saroo and his quest to get back home, as those details are far less visceral and more difficult to boil down into movie form. Nonetheless, by the dramatic conclusion we’ve again become so invested in this story that each emotional beat lands with undeniable power.

The five-year-old Saroo is played by Sunny Pawar, an enchanting boy with none of the cloying self-awareness kids are often guilty of when tasked with carrying so much of a major feature. Dev Patel takes over the role once the boy has grown to be a young adult. Patel made his initial splash as the star of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and has gone on to an impressive career, most recently as the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity (also released in 2016). As Saroo's adoptive mother, Nicole Kidman delivers an understated performance that never overpowers the picture.  In fact, one of the ways Lion falls short is that it leaves unexplored too much of the family drama inherent in Saroo’s upbringing. Rather than spend adequate screen time examining the young man’s relationship with his adoptive parents and his troubled adoptive brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), the film develops a generic love story between Saroo and his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara)—a composite of several women the real Saroo was involved with during his search. Mara’s role feels enhanced for the sole purpose of creating a box-office friendly part for a young female star rather than a way to explore the main character’s emotional life.

Other than giving Saroo one love interest and compressing the search for his original home from five years to two, the film sticks close to the facts of the story. The events of this true tale just happen to align with the timeless fairytale narrative of a child getting lost or taken from his home and later embarking on a quest to be reunited with his mother.  Because of this classical structure and the two countries involved, India and Australia, some cynical viewers may dismiss Lion as melodramatic cliché or white-liberal-feel-good hokum. After all, we live in a time of cinematic criticism where the empty fantasy of Rogue One is praised to the skies for being “dark” and “uncompromising,’ while the true story of a kid overcoming the horrific separation from his family and culture and searching to find his identity can be derided as a saccharine tear-jerker. 

Although sticking close to the facts is a noble endeavor when telling recent true-life stories, the filmmakers could have taken more license with the literal truth, in order to give the adult protagonist a major, dramatic breakthrough moment where he discovers the missing clue to what he’s looking for.  In real life, this revelation happened randomly, so that is how the moment is shown in the film. In a fictionalized narrative feature, having the final piece of a puzzle just fall into the main character’s lap with no reason or special effort feels undramatic and unsatisfying. But the movie recovers from its weak climax, because the conclusion has such an emotionally strong payoff. On the whole, the tone struck in Lion feels consistent and authentic, with most of its emotional maneuvering earned and appropriate. Only the most jaded viewers will find themselves unmoved by the final moments of this picture. 

Directed by Garth Davis
Produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, and Angie Fielder

Screenplay by Luke Davies
Based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose

With: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Kamla Munshi, Sue Brierley, and Saroo Brierley

Cinematography: Greig Fraser
Editing: Alexandre de Franceschi
Music: Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran

Runtime: 118 min
Release Date: 06 January 2017
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color