THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Lion tells one of those amazing true stories that only a pure cynic could fail to be captivated by. It's about Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a five-year-old Indian boy from a deeply impoverished family. His older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) takes him out at night to work. They get separated, and Saroo wanders into a decommissioned train car that is hauled over 1,000 kilometers from his home. Lost and confused, he bounces around Calcutta, eventually encountering a social worker who arranges for him to be adopted by Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), a couple who live in Australia.
From there, the story jumps ahead twenty-five years. Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is studying hotel management and dating a young woman named Lucy (Rooney Mara). He has never stopped thinking about his mother and brother. The thought that they have spent more than two decades wondering what happened to him proves disturbing. After a friend suggests he can combine some basic childhood memories with Google Earth to figure out where his village is, Saroo decides to go in search of his family.
Lion is kind of like two separate movies that meld together meaningfully. The first hour is about young Saroo – how he gets lost, the people he encounters, the way he tries to adapt to a more privileged lifestyle with the Brierleys. The second hour concentrates on the adult Saroo. His worry that looking for his biological mother will upset Sue looms over him, causing him to feel guilt about his quest. Combined, the halves add up to a story that encompasses themes of adoption, poverty, and familial connection.
Hour one whitewashes a couple of potentially intriguing incidents that occur, such as an encounter with a man whose “friendly” demeanor masks some dishonorable intentions. That can be a little frustrating, but director Garth Davis stages this section of Lion in documentary-like fashion. This powerful approach drives home how different Saroo's life becomes once he is with his adoptive family. He no longer has to scrounge for food or walk around in filthy clothing. He goes from having nothing to having everything. The film smartly doesn't beat you over the head with that idea, instead simply allowing you to observe the disparity.
Hour two is more conventionally shot, which is okay because the focus shifts to more domestic themes. Saroo grapples with possibly causing the Brierleys to feel rejected when he decides to find his biological family. Lion is especially heartfelt here, examining the bond that develops between adopted children and their parents, as well as the desire of those children to have greater understanding of their own origins. If the back half of the picture can be summed up in one scene, it's the tender moment in which Sue explains the true reason behind their decision to adopt.
That's a killer opportunity for Nicole Kidman, who does outstanding work in a supporting role. Lion belongs to Dev Patel, though. The actor, who rose to fame in Slumdog Millionaire, helps us understand Saroo's predicament. He loves Sue and John, sees them fully as his parents, and would never want to cause them pain. At the same time, he is haunted by the anguish he knows his birthmother must feel, wondering where her little boy vanished to. Patel is wonderful in the role, bringing shades of inner turmoil that earn our empathy.
The final fifteen minutes of Lion pay off Saroo's journey in a manner that really tugs your heartstrings. This real-life individual got lost as a very small child, was whisked far away from home, ended up half-way around the world, then made a pilgrimage back to where it all began. Saroo's life contains extremes: terror and joy, heartbreak and love, isolation and acceptance. Lion tells this remarkable tale with an abundance of compassion, leaving you with a lump in your throat.
( 1/2 out of four)
Lion is rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sensuality. The running time is 2 hours.
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