Saroo has a hard if loving life, taking coal to sell with his brother, or helping his mother around their home. When Saroo is accidentally separated from his family he finds himself over one thousand kilometers away from home in a land where no one understands him. As an adult, Saroo deals with the pain of his marooned early life, while he finds hope that he might one day rediscover his family. Garth Davis directs Lion, with the screenplay written by Luke Davies, and stars Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, and Nicole Kidman.
It's amazing how much one subtitle can inform the perspective of a movie. Early in Lion, young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) gets stuck in a train for several days. As the train nears its destination, Kolkata, a subtitle politely informs us in the audience that Saroo has traveled nearly 1600km away from his home in Khandwa. Too often in Westernized movies do the artists behind the camera take the countries they present for granted, reducing the complexity of countries, states, provinces, and villages which form foreign lands into a single mass. Director Garth Davis doesn't condescend India like this, and inserts that one subtitle in as a way of respectfully educating those in the audience who need it.
That sense of respect for the varying cultures and languages of India is present for the first half of Lion, only for the respect to become a tad ephemeral in the second. The first half works so well because Davis treats Saroo's story with respect and tailors it exactly to Saroo's surroundings. Davis doesn't present young Saroo's time in Khandwa and Kolkata with the sort of bombast that made Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire so entertaining. Saroo looks like the child he is, lost in the fairy tale of his life.
Cinematographer Greg Fraser favors closeups and medium shots of Saroo in Khandwa as Saroo dotes on his brother and loves his mother. Life is hard, but Saroo is able to treat it as an adventure, climbing on coal trains with his brother (Abhishek Bharate) or giving milk to mother (Priyanka Bose). The scenes are so specific and effortlessly joyful that I feared the transition to Saroo's journey in Khandwa would lose the weird spark of fairy tale. Thankfully, it does not, and Fraser works with Davis and Pawar to show Saroo adrift in a world of titanic structures and threats both vague and direct. Saroo's desperation reflects back at him at a ticket booth, he wanders the eerily empty streets of Kolkata at night, and is sized up by a mysterious man named Rama (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) in a way reminiscent of the witch and Hansel and Gretel. The first half of Lion is awe-inspiring in the scope of its shots and the heroism of Saroo.
Sadly, the fairy tale comes to an end, Saroo is adopted by Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham). The shot opening with Saroo twenty years later, now played with inscrutable intensity by Dev Patel, is of Saroo emerging from water. Nothing like a splash of water to wake you up to the realities of the world, but Davis' way of dealing with Saroo's adult reality is not nearly as effective as the first half, with Saroo's relationship to his adopted brother Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav as a child, Divian Ladwa as an adult) a solid lead for why.
Mantosh embodies questions about the Australian foster system and life for children other than Saroo that Davis nor screenwriter Luke Davies seem interested in answering. I can't deny the emotional punch of Patel's performance, but the scenes of Mantosh hurting himself and lashing out in rage exist as "condiments" for Saroo's life, adding little in the way of understanding or depth to Saroo's distant adult self. Mantosh's self-harm is so intense, with Jadhav and Ladwa both hurtling themselves into the emotional state with alarming ease, that Davis' presentation of the harm does a disservice to those suffering by keeping Lion at a distance. Saroo is clearly affected deeply by Mantosh and holds complicated love for him, but this is more due to Patel's performance than the scenes Davis chose to film, which present Mantosh as little more than another obstacle for Saroo instead of a character in his own right.
All this leads to a bafflingly tone-deaf scene with Kidman and Patel, where Patel has to listen cautiously as Kidman explains the dream she had about a brown child. This is a tricky moment, and whether it is "true" to the real story or not is irrelevant as we go from Saroo's growing desperation to figure out where he comes from to Sue's selfish desire for a brown child. Sue is the target of sympathy in this scene, not Saroo, which stands in stark contrast to the magnificent first half of the film. Similarly troubling is how Google Earth gets a shameless plug for kicking Saroo off on his journey. Again, maybe this is "true" to the real story, but the ease of technological access is what separates Saroo from his family to begin with. That technology plays just as easy a role in returning Saroo to his homeland is another unexamined tension, and given India's painful history of progress alongside imperialism is a tension that shouldn't have been brought up at all if it wasn't going to be addressed.
These are big problems with Lion, and if anyone dislikes Lion because of them I would not put up an argument. But the saving grace of the troubled second half is Patel with other nuanced excellence in performing by Rooney Mara. It's impossible to undersell how excellent Patel is here. He creates such a beautifully wounded human, rooted in his continued childlike need to please others with touch and jokes, but because of his experience is unable to communicate the need for support or space. Mara is a perfect foil as Lucy even if her character is written with some of the same shallowness as Mantosh's. Patel and Mara's scenes are exquisite balances of pain and pleasure, with each partner right on the edge of the words or gesture that will help seal their respective wounds, only to collapse in despair when their expressions fall short.
When I think back on Lion, it will be these scenes with Patel and Mara, desperately trying to connect and failing. I understand why others might not, and not every artist can bridge the gap between childhood wonder and adult disappointment as effortlessly as Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka's haunting piano theme. But my tears flowed freely as young Saroo's fairy tale turned to horror, and adult Saroo gets to feel like a child one last time.
Directed by Garth Davis.
Screenplay written by Luke Davies.
Starring Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, and Nicole Kidman.