It takes a lot to make a dramatic feature, based on a true story, into something that hits in the right ways. Because a drama can have the intent to strike at certain chords to ideally generate emotions, there is often a level of manipulation to consider. Lion concerns the story of a lost Indian boy, who loses his family, gains another and then searches to find what he has lost. That is the sketch of a tale that will likely draw up various emotions, but the key is to earn it. The film’s success largely revolves around how it carefully navigates this story’s big moments that go from a more visceral adventure to a cerebral study of loss. It pays off big, as the film is quite the effective drama.
Beginning in 1986 India, young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) heads out with his brother to do some work and bring back some money for the family. Saroo soon finds himself in a terrifying situation, as he falls asleep aboard a mostly unoccupied train and travels a long distance away from his home, before finally stopping. With a language barrier and little knowledge of where he is from, due to his very young age, Saroo is faced with an impossible challenge of getting back home.
This whole setup to Saroo becoming lost makes for an extended first act that is inherently engaging, given the young boy we are watching going through such a harrowing situation. Based on “A Long Way Home” by the real Saroo Brierley, there are lots of little details and choices that make this a fascinating look at how this child handled himself. Director Garth Davis does his best to display how surreal it can be for homeless children attempting to survive on the streets and what it means to have nothing, without going too dark with the material.
It all leads to Saroo eventually being adopted and flown to Australia to grow up with his new parents played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. Soon after this, we come to follow an older Saroo played by Dev Patel, who eventually stops holding back and starts a quest to retrace his steps via Google Earth, in attempt to find his original home. It is not easy, as it puts stress on his relationship with his parents, as well as his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara).
If there is any issue with Lion, it is in seeing the amount of angst the older Saroo goes through, while attempting to deal with his understandably rough dilemma. The film slows down a lot in the middle portion to devote time to the light brooding Patel does. Still, that does not take away from how strong a performance he gives, let alone Kidman, who shines during her big moment to deliver a monologue. This character development strengthens the film’s emotional climax, given how much build up there is to Saroo’s possible journey home.
As with any good story about a journey though, it is the actual traveling portion that makes for the most exciting or interesting aspects. For a feature film debut, Davis gets a lot out of his story by making good use of his locations. India and Australia really do provide the filming locations and we get a lot out of seeing the work done to feature these authentic settings. Lion also finds some clever ways to have the older Saroo witness images that he is calling to mind from memory and blend them with his reality. The music by Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran helps by way of echoing a repeated motif that reflects how Saroo’s memory is functioning. It is one of the many clever conceits we see here.
Essentially, the film has dreamlike cinematography provided by Greig Fraser, once we arrive in the later time period. Earlier on, the film has the kind of grit that feels appropriate for the setting and does a fine job of creating realistic peril for a young boy doing what he can to solve his impossible situation. It is also worth noting that while the older and more experienced actors provide strong performances, this is Pawar’s first film and he is great in showing how smart and headstrong Saroo was from an early age.
There is a meaning to the title of Lion that may or may not be clear to the viewer, but is certainly a question that is answered by the film’s end. Some films go too far in trying to get away with a clever title. Lion is one that earns it. The film is an affecting drama that dives into what it would mean to deal with loss and feel guilty about living a different life, knowing that there are others out there looking for one who has no idea how to go about looking back. Fortunately a way was found in real life, which led to a film putting a spotlight on this wonderful story. Seek out this Lion.