What makes Lion an unforgettable experience is that it is based on a true story. There really was a little Indian boy named Saroo who became separated from his mother and older brother by unfortunate circumstances. This little boy really did get adopted by a couple from Tasmania, and twenty years later, he did track down and found his birth mother using Google Earth. The story sounds more like a Hollywood script than the actual events of someone’s life, but there it is.
The director, Garth Davis, brings to Lion the tools which made his previous work, the critically acclaimed television series Top of the Lake, such a compelling watch. Although the running time of Lion can be shortened, Davis does an excellent job of establishing place and interweaving it with tangible emotions. He lingers with his characters, allowing for silences to stretch out longer than you are comfortable with. Through Davis’ carefully crafted lens, we meet Saroo as a tiny adorable child who spends his days helping his beautiful mother carry rocks and palling around with his older brother. Their family is poor, uneducated, but it never does seem to matter to them. It is all in the eyes: Saroo’s eyes, his brother’s eyes, his mother’s eyes – they shine and dance their way out of their owners’ mundane miseries.
A shot of Saroo standing in tranquil silence while butterflies flutter all around him is the shot which introduces the audience to Sunny Pawar, the five-year-old child actor who plays our title character. Pawer has never acted before, never even seen a film before, but from this moment on, he eats up the screen and makes you fall in love with him. There is a wisdom – an unexplainable, painful stillness – in his eyes which is beyond his years, and it is his immeasurable talent which carries the first half of the film. We follow little Saroo as he interacts with his family members and when he falls asleep at night on a train. He is trapped and alone, riding the train for two days before getting off in Kolkata. There, he begins living life on the streets, then is transferred to an orphanage, before being put on a plane to meet his adoptive white parents (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) in Australia.
Adult Saroo is portrayed by Dev Patel, the British actor who broke through in Danny Boyd’s Slumdog Millionaire before charming the small screen with his work in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. In this film, Patel gives the best performance of his career as he navigates Saroo’s torn existence and the various people in his life. There is his Aussie dad who drops by, asking him over to watch the cricket final; his university girlfriend from America named Lucy (Rooney Mara); Mantosh, his troubled adopted Indian brother (Divian Ladwa); and his adoptive mother Su whose fragile happiness is deeply linked to the fates of her adoptive sons. Lion explores adoption with both tender and brutal touches. Patel’s performance embodies this. It is heavy, riddled with guilt and pain, sometimes whirring between coiled tension and combustion. He’s sorry that she couldn’t have children of her own, he tells his Australian mother – softly, brokenly. That way, she could have started with “blank slates” and not with young boys who are tortured by their past. But when she says that she could have had children of her own, but chose not to… well, this is when the waterworks start, if they haven’t yet already.
The past and its baggage are topics which come up a lot in this film. Saroo’s adopted brother Mantosh never recovers from his past torments before his adoption – he is still unable to adjust and lives the life of a self-harming drug addict. Su’s own decision to adopt is also linked to her childhood with a father who’s an abusive alcoholic. Saroo himself puts his life in Australia on hold as he searches for his lost family. He sees his brother when he goes to the mall in Tasmania. He sees his mother on a riverbank in India when he walks into the ocean. He can only rid himself of his ghosts when he searches for and finds that connection with the life he has lost. When he zooms in on Google Earth, getting closer and closer to his birth mother, he is not just returning but moving forward.
Lion is an extraordinary film because of the extraordinary story it tells. It is beautiful and violent in the emotions it evokes, for it reminds us that the past can haunt us more than we want it to, and rather than turning our backs on it, we might have no choice but to seek it out.
RATING: 4/5 stars.