Based on the memoir "A Long Way Home" by Saroo Brierley, "Lion" tells a stunning stranger-than-fiction story for the modern age. In 1986, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) tagged along on a late-night excursion with older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and was left sleeping on a Khadwa, India, train platform. When Guddu never returned as promised, Saroo found himself trapped on an off-duty passenger train that ultimately took him nearly 1,000 miles from his home. Not knowing his mother's (Priyanka Bose) real name or the town he lived in, Saroo was presumably lost for good and eventually adopted by loving Tasmanian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). It wasn't until over twenty years later when Internet program Google Earth gave the now-grown Saroo (Dev Patel) a newfound hope of tracking down where he came from.
"Lion" is inspiring and deftly performed, but also rather predictable and episodic. The kind of film that captures awards attention but is perhaps too safe to break from convention, it is worth recommending but difficult to get overly excited about. First-time feature director Garth Davis is more at home in capturing his settings and working with his actors than he is in organically spinning a narrative written by Luke Davies that isn't overtly split into two lopsided halves. The opening hour, taking place when Saroo is a child, is thoroughly compelling, even frightening, in its portrayal of this young boy's feelings of helplessness and dislocation. Without a home or his family, trapped by a language barrier in a foreign land, Saroo eventually finds his way when fortune smiles on him in the form of adoptive parents Sue and John. Newcomer Sunny Pawar never once appears to be acting in this dramatically hefty segment, working especially well with Abhishek Bharate, as brother Guddu. Pawar and Bharate develop such a tight bond onscreen that a hole is left not only for Saroo, but for the viewer, when Guddu never returns to pick him up at the train platform.
The second hour of "Lion" is choppier in its storytelling, moving quickly through a span of five years while leaving subplots, including Saroo's schooling and career in hotel management, dangling in the balance. When Saroo discovers the possibilities of Google Earth, his obsession with finding his childhood home quietly takes over his life. Though he appears to live in an idyllic seaside house, he is never seen working or doing much of anything beyond occasionally visiting his parents and troubled adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa). His relationship with girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) is underwritten, as well, after a bewitching early scene where they flirt with each other from opposite sides of the street.
As the elder Saroo, Dev Patel (2015's "Chappie
") is affecting, embodying the sense of yearning and loss which continues to permeate his life decades after becoming separated from his birth family. Nicole Kidman (2015's "Paddington
") is raw and earnest as mother Sue, knocking one particularly tough late scene between her and Saroo out of the park. As Lucy, Rooney Mara (2015's "Carol
") does what she can, but is never able to escape the constraints of her standard-issue girlfriend role.
For all of its screenwriting and editorial problem areas, "Lion" packs an emotional wallop in its concluding scenes. Retracing the same path back to a home he only remembers in his distant memories from twenty-five years ago, Saroo has no way of knowing if his long-lost family will be at the end of his journey. Director Garth Davis brings a confidence and intimacy to this finale, achieving an earned emotional catharsis free of maudlin trappings. It rings true, just as so much of the actors' impassioned performances do. The trajectory "Lion" takes isn't surprisingit is quite inevitable, actuallybut the film's centerpiece true account is respectful and, ultimately, heartening.