*** (out of 4)
Every awards season has its resident human interest movie – a movie, whether good or bad, that recounts the inspiring tale of someone beating the odds. This year, the honor goes to Lion, a true story about businessman Saroo Brierly and his reunion with his Indian family. Sound boring? Consider that he was separated from them at 5, lived on the streets of Calcutta for almost a month, ended up being adopted by a couple in Australia, and only managed to find his way back home 25 years later with the help of Google Earth. Now you’ve got something.
If you just watched the first half of this movie, which focuses on Saroo’s life pre-adoption, you’d be reassured that “inspiring” doesn’t have to be dull. The child who plays a young Saroo, novice Sunny Pawar, moves you without even trying. Whether he’s standing alone in an empty train station or scrambling to stay on his feet in a crowd of travelers, his completely blank face betrays a child so innocent that he doesn’t even know how to react to his suffering. You remain fixed on him as he flees from menacing strangers, bumps into suspiciously kind adults, and eventually ends up in an overcrowded orphanage. And if you don’t always quite understand what he’s running from, that’s fine: you know that he hasn’t found home, and until then you instinctively keep on edge. This part does a beautiful job capturing the terror of Saroo’s journey through the slums of urban India; you feel almost viscerally his silent, aching desire for someone or something he can hold on to in the midst of so much misery.
Then the story fast forwards. Saroo is suddenly an adult (played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel) who’s about to go to college. And from here, the focused tension of the first part melts into a hazy muddle. The story now has to reckon with three plotlines: Saroo’s relationship with a classmate (Rooney Mara), his relationship with his adopted family, and his consuming desire to find his original hometown. But the screenwriter couldn’t figure out how to organize these elements, and the meandering result left part of me impatiently hoping Saroo would get over his emotional issues and just get back to India. It doesn’t help, either, that the film’s refusal to clarify basic details leaves us confused: is Saroo still going out with Mara’s character or not? Is he living with his parents or by himself? Does he have a job, or is he just looking at Google Earth all day? And what exactly is going on with his adopted brother?
Still, none of this should deter you from seeing this movie. The acting is superb; Patel is very much believable, and Nicole Kidman brings real heart to her performance as Saroo’s adopted mother. And the ending, even if you’ve been expecting it for two hours, is touching, thanks in no small part to its uniqueness. Sometimes, all a movie needs to do is make you happy, and as cluttered as it gets for a while, Lion does that just fine. You’ll leave with your faith in the power of human relationships rejuvenated – and in the middle of winter, we could all use a little cheer like that.
N.B. Starting with this review, reviews will come with star ratings attached to them. How it’ll work (roughly): 3 and above is worth seeing, 2 and below should be skipped, and 2.5 is worth it if you have no other options.
Starring: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Sunny Pawar
Running Time: 118 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for thematic material and some sensuality.”
Produced by: Iain Canning, Angie Fielder, Emile Sherman
Written by: Luke Davies. Based on Saroo Brierly’s 2014 book A Long Way Home.
Directed by: Garth Davis