“I have to find my way back home.”
It isn’t difficult to understand why the Weinstein Company has invested quite a bit of stock into its latest Oscar entry, Lion. After all, the film is a rather safe bet: the Garth Davis-helmed feature is yet another addition to the endless list of based-on-a-true-story dramas, following a young Indian boy as he finds himself in an impossible quest to return home after getting lost. Instead, he is inserted into an unfamiliar world with an adopted family all the way in Tasmania, only for him to long for the missing, unresolved pieces in the fabric of his identity. Despite adopting a formula that may seem all too familiar and predictable, Lion soars and somehow manages to feel special.
The story begins in 1986, where a bond between family is quickly depicted as five-year-old Saroo (newcomer Sunny Pawar) is seen idolizing his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). The two enjoy their simple existence in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Khandwa in India, whether it be cherishing a meal with their mother and sister or basking in the untouched nature of their homeland. Tragically, however, their peace is disrupted when Saroo becomes separated from his brother and stripped from his home as he accidentally embarks on a train that takes him thousands of miles across the country, further and further away from everything he once knew.
For the first forty-five minutes of the film, we follow young Saroo as a chaotic, unforgiving world attempts to swallow him whole, throwing curveball after curveball as our protagonist merely tries to survive without any guidance or help. In his first ever acting role, Sunny Pawar’s Saroo is a genuine delight to watch — wide-eyed, innocent, and impossibly endearing yet hopeful and determined in the terrible face of uncertainty. He is forced to live on the streets amongst strangers in similar struggles, unable to even speak the local language and powerless in his new environment. Ultimately, then, the film relies on its first half with young Saroo as the emotional tissue that begs its audience to sympathize with the protagonist, even as he evolves into an adult, bringing Dev Patel into the fold in the most memorable performance of his career.
Saved from being without a home, Saroo is taken into an orphanage then adopted by Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) from Tasmania, causing a disarming shift in tone once the harrowing grit is left behind in India and replaced by cookie cutter conventions. Davis takes a short cut and fast forwards twenty years later from where the story began, almost immediately injecting Saroo into being fully-assimilated in his new world instead of highlighting the struggles of adapting a tremendous difference in cultures.
As a result, we realize that Saroo had shelved his early recollections of India, unable to identify with his roots in the present until he is compelled to pick up the pieces after his memories are triggered. Davis leaves his protagonist to do the dirty work as Saroo suddenly struggles with the privilege he feels he hasn’t earned, especially after the trials of his early years in India and questioning what had become of the family he left behind.
While the film swiftly makes a turn into melodrama after establishing Saroo’s struggle with his identity, it is a testament to Patel’s engaging performance that even as the film becomes watered down by formulaic cliches, Saroo’s journey remains intriguing and worth following. Isolating himself from his relationships and success, he makes it his new goal to somehow track down the home he’d left behind through the then-revolutionary technology of Google Earth.
Despite occasionally driving too deep into sappiness, Davis’s direction showcases such an earnestness that even the cheese works in his favor and never feels forced. It would be easy to paint his debut feature as too conventional, but any other direction would have felt like a disservice to Saroo and his remarkable journey. As a story about one man’s journey of collecting the missing pieces of his identity, the film succeeds in being understated, yet powerful. Without patronizing its audience, the emotional punch Lion packs feels like a triumphant roar, worthy of its heartfelt conclusion.
Lion is playing at AFI Fest in Los Angeles