There’s nothing understated about the dramatic roar of Lion. Opening backstories transition into a child’s story of independent survival on unknown Indian turf, while a years-later second half wrestles manifesting guilt inside an adopted child plucked from poverty. At first we get adventure, then sincere instability settles in. It’s a lot for a first-time director to balance, but Garth Davis tackles Luke Davies’ adapted screenplay head-on without wavering commitment. Whether it works or not is something we’ll dissect further, but trust that Davies’ background in fine arts plays into a beautification sparked from the very first credits sequence. Can Lion hold steady for two hours worth of transplanted drama, though?
Davies’ script brings to life Saroo Brierley’s inspirational tell-all, A Long Way Home. First played by the pint-sized Sunny Pawar, we follow Saroo as he wanders helplessly around the streets of Calcutta. He’d accidentally fallen asleep on a train while waiting for his brother, and at only five years old, could not properly handle the situation. Trapped in a city that speaks another language (Bengali vs. Hindi), Saroo is eventually taken to an overcrowded orphanage where he’s adopted by a sweet Tasmanian family (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) – shipped out of India without any word from his mother.
Dev Patel takes over twenty-five years later, playing a more mature Saroo. Now enrolled in academic Hotel/Restaurant management courses, he thanks the Brierleys through achievements and accomplishments made possible by his privileged rescue. It’s during his curriculum that Saroo meets Lucy (Rooney Mara), and they fall in love – but Saroo needs more.
He knows his mother and brother still scream for him each night, and their imagined words haunt recurring thoughts. With the help of a “new” program called Google Earth (we’re dealing with a 2008 timeframe here), Saroo spends hours every night measuring train speeds and tracing search radii with the hope that he’ll discover his home town. It’s a task that costs him employment, focus and even those he loves, but a sorrowful son cannot rest until his mother is calmed – no matter the cost.
The Weinstein Company is putting all their Oscar eggs into Lion’s basket, but competition may prove unfavorable. Patel is tremendous in his role as a somber, shaken Saroo Brierley, but a leading-man Oscar doesn’t appear likely. The film itself has some stacked odds against a Best Picture play, simply because execution sometimes struggles to keep emotions running high for over 120 minutes.
You might make an argument for supporting roles (Kidman?) and cinematography – maybe even adapted screenplay – but Lion doesn’t stand out like fellow big-name competitors. Movies like Moonlight and La La Land reverberate through your bones and evoke cinematic awakenings, while Lion merely tells a heartfelt story that deserves no shame, stock-made for awards season attention.
Surprisingly, for as good as Patel is, young Sunny Pawar bursts into acting with the appeal of insta-star child actors like Neel Sethi (The Jungle Book) and Avin Manshadi (Under The Shadow). He’s young enough where acting is still a game, and innocence radiates with each step his little legs take. Pawar’s range alone instills professionalism beyond years, without even mentioning the gargantuan presence shown by a character standing up to your kneecaps. Confusion, loneliness, strength, perseverance – Saroo is a foreign visitor stranded in a giant’s world, and it’s Pawar who turns a pipsqueak son into an emotional jumble of gripping unworldliness.
Of course, Patel is no slouch. Frankly, his soulful rendition of manly Saroo notes some of the best work he’s done yet. Respect is a common theme threaded through all his decisions, doused in the painful guilt-trip of abandonment he feels for leaving India behind. Every choice is made to “save” those closest to him (pushes Lucy away, hides investigative work from mama Sue), recognizing that only his real mother’s touch will vanquish inner demons. Patel stumbles around in this determined stupor while channeling Saroo’s incomplete feelings, expressing a realistic respect for the many circumstances that could play out. It’s a larger-than-life task pitted against million-to-one odds, but that’s what makes Saroo’s quest so inspiring – something Patel pays homage to through unwavering spirits.
Saroo’s early years are more of an odyssey, as the small child evades nightly roundups of street children and escapes the clutches of a man who claims he’s “just what they’re looking for” (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Much of Pawar’s performance sees him sprinting all around Calcutta, running towards wherever safety might be found. Distress rings out whenever Saroo yells for his mother or brother (Guddu), but he’s a strong little cub who faces challenges without fear. Prawa’s charisma is unmatched and I can’t stress that enough, making his scenes the true spectacle here.
Patel’s interactions with supporting players showcase adult Saroo’s weightier moments, especially when facing his Aussie mother Sue. In her role, Kidman is always family to Saroo, and their bond – although not by blood – champions the film’s most gut-wrenching emotions in such a warm, positive light. Saroo’s commitment to Sue and John Brierly burns so bright, and while Mara’s on-and-off girlfriend plays a pivotal role in pushing her lover towards peace of mind, it’s Saroo’s honoring of family that extracts tears of humanity. That’s doubly-true whenever Saroo’s Indian mother appears – especially during the conflict’s resolution – but Lion is admirable for it’s ability to avoid generic Oscar sadness in favor of uplifting family reunions.
There’s also another boy adopted by the Brierleys, whose lifestyle tells a different story. Mantosh Brierly (Divian Ladwa) is a victim of India’s somewhat abusive orphanage system, due to the massive amount of children who enter an exhausted cycle. Where Saroo arrived on the Brierley’s doorstep with a smile, Mantosh came with baggage. Nights were spent trying to calm Mantosh during hyper fits of self-inflicted abuse, reflecting the toll that years in Indian child care systems can take. Lion speaks to a much larger message than family respect, pulling back yet another curtain that allows viewers into more unfortunate workings of our world’s grand stage.
There is power in Lion, and you may even cry when the credits start scrolling. It’s just that Garth Davis’ last two or three minutes trump the entire 127 before it, which are more obvious and coincidental setups. How Saroo pinpoints his home village is a logistical farce, but we don’t care once he hugs his long-lost mama for the first time in over twenty years. Performances deserve recognition and themes deserve megaphones, but striking cinematography sometimes overshadows a more Oscar-bait-y production that doesn’t quite earn awards praise, but is still a solid, affecting watch.
Lion may be a little too Oscar-bait-y, but it's not without loud emotional roars.