Beginning with an achingly haunting series of scenes that are genuinely touching, Lion dramatizes a true story that is complete unto itself. Then the stars arrive and the rest of the movie happens.
In 1986, we meet 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) somewhere in rural India. He lives with his mother Kamla, older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), and younger sister Shekila in a small village, where the family ekes out a living by any means necessary. Kamla labors strenuously all day gathering rocks at a quarry, while Guddu engages in petty larceny, stealing coal and the like, often taking along Saroo.
Late one night, Guddu heads off to a new job for a week, reluctantly allowing Saroo to accompany him at the last minute due to the boy’s persistent insistence. They arrive at a nearby train station that soon empties out; exhausted, Saroo lies down for a nap while Guddu excuses himself for a few minutes. The little boy quickly falls asleep; when he awakens, neither Guddu nor anyone else can be found.
Panicked, he searches the station and ends up in an empty train. Even more exhausted, he falls asleep. When he wakes up again, the still-empty train is moving quickly through the countryside and Saroo discovers that he’s been locked in; the train has been decommissioned. Trapped, and more panicked than ever, Saroo travels for hours to an unknown destination.
Eventually reaching a large city (Calcutta), little Saroo escapes his trap, quickly finding himself in a desperate struggle for survival. He has no idea where he is and, perhaps even worse, has no idea where he is from. He doesn’t even known his mother’s given name! In time, Saroo comes into the care of the authorities. Still later, Saroo is adopted by an Australian family, and it’s then that Lion begins its steady descent into mediocrity.
From the point that the hapless Saroo begins his ill-fated train trip, the film takes on a a haunting urgency, stirred with a poignant dose of loss. Even if the little boy does not know what is happening, any somewhat older viewer can easily deduce the sadness in the situation, as well as the potential for tragedy.
Director Garth Davis (TV’s Top of the Lake) handles these sequences with restraint, seldom adding any dialogue to the visuals. The sight of the lost little boy, surrounded by crowds of strangers, is truly heart-wrenching and speaks for itself.
The ambient sounds give way to more dialogue once Saroo is rescued from the streets, yet again, restraint is excercised. We can see what’s happening, without much need for explanation.
The approach is abandoned, however, once Nicole Kidman and David Wenham enter the scene as Saroo’s adoptive parents, Sue and John Brierley. Later, Dev Patel takes over the role of Saroo, and it’s a jarring transition, not only because the little boy is now a man, but because the lyrical nature of the film transforms into a standard ‘issue movie with stars’ kind of thing.
Everything is spelled out, used in a sentence, and repeated. Saroo loves his parents, but has a nagging desire to discover his roots. The desire blooms into an obsession once he discovers the wonders of Google Earth, which allows him to search for his long-lost home by remote means.
In order to convey his feelings, which he feels are complicated, he must talk about them, over and over and over again. As noted, this is a true story, one that Saroo Brierley related in his book A Long Way Home. The screenplay, credited to Luke Davies, struggles to relate the minutiae, which is frustrating to watch because far fewer words are needed.
We’ve already seen the intimate family love that Saroo enjoyed in his childhood, after all, and his motivations are far more clear to the audience than to the people on screen. What is feels like is that the stars needed something to say in order to express emotions that should already be apparent.
Before it runs down, however, Lion is a very touching memorial to a lost childhood. Those early sequences are the keepers in what becomes a routine drama.
The film opens on Sunday, December 25 at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano.