The hill across the street. The convenience store a few blocks over that still sells cassettes. The dented mailbox on the corner. The broken streetlight that never works. While where we live is marked by house numbers and street names, what can make us feel at home are the details, the landmarks that won’t necessarily be found on any map, but come from the familiarity of our surroundings from lived in experience. These are just some of the ideas that “Lion” wants to play with, as a true story tale about a young man’s journey to find his way home again. Unfortunately, these notions are given a surface treatment, in a drama that dulls its complexity with a neatly told narrative in which its emotions are perfunctory rather than palpable.
At least in the early stages, “Lion” requires the audience to meet the film halfway. Nearly the entire first half of the movie, told in Bengali and Hindi, is carried on the astounding shoulders of the charming and surprisingly talented young newcomer Sunny Pawar, playing the young, five year-old Saroo. Living in rural India, he tags along with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) as they find ways to help support their impoverished family. This often involves jumping on passing trains to nearby towns, where they manage to find small jobs to do, or run little hustles to scrape together quick cash. However, on one such outing, Saroo gets separated from Guddu, and as he tries to find him, winds up on a decommissioned train that travels 1600 kilometres across the country, landing in Calcutta.
Perhaps the best decision made in Luke Davies’ script is too make clear just how quickly Saroo could’ve disappeared forever when left to fend for himself on the streets of India’s third largest city. The threat of physical and sexual abuse and exploitation disadvantaged children face comes dangerously close to Saroo, and even when he’s “rescued,” state care is not without its own horrifying shortcomings. And so when Saroo is selected to be by adopted by Australians Sue and John Brierly (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) it’s not just luck of the draw, but a miracle of survival that he’s found the kind of happy ending few of the children he encountered receive.
Unfortunately, when the storyline jumps forward two decades, it seems the screenplay shifts too, and what was an evocative setting-of-the-stage turns abruptly conventional and one-dimensional. Now grown and headed to Melbourne to attend college, all it takes is one bite of jalebi for Saroo (now played by a long, greasy haired Dev Patel, who you’ll want to send to a barber) to start wondering about his past, and becoming consumed by what happened to his mother and siblings. His obsession becomes increasingly isolating, as he winds up pushing away his new girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara, wasted in a superfluous role as an occasional cheerleader for Saroo), lashing out at his adopted, troubled brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa, underwritten), and spending too many nights (and far too many scenes) emotionally looking at Google Earth, falling asleep on the couch and staring pensively out of windows. According to the movie, Saroo’s search was a lonely one, powered with the help of only one piece of technology. The reality was much different, and involved more community.
In David Kushner’s 2012 article “A Home at the End of Google Earth” for Vanity Fair, which tells the remarkable story of Saroo, it notes that YouTube videos, Facebook groups, and college friends all assisted in Saroo’s search for his home and family. His queries were more than just scrolling systematically through various maps, and involved asking specific questions on social media like, “i think im from Khandwa. i havent seen or been back to the place for 24 years. Just wandering [sic] if there is a big foutain [sic] near the Cinema?” But “Lion” renders Saroo’s hunt as a mostly sullen mission. Meanwhile, left unexplored to its richest potential is how love given isn’t always received. While Saroo was a blessing for Sue and John, and he thrived and reciprocated the affection he received in his new life with them, the same wasn’t true for Mantosh. A couple of nicely written scenes grapple with the subject, but the logical extension is whether or not Saroo’s birth mother found her love changed for her son after he vanishes. But this painful possibility is left unsaid, and the conclusion of Saroo’s search — even though we know the ending — has a sense of manufactured, joyous inevitability, rather than uncertainty.
It seems to be a choice of the filmmakers to leave nothing about where the drama winds up going up to chance, and this includes a truly mind-boggling, Bollywood-style end credits song which features an endless refrain of “never give up.” Garth Davis (“Top Of The Lake”), making his feature length directorial debut, shows a steady if somewhat safe hand in his first outing, but he gets gorgeous work from the always terrific efforts of cinematographer Greig Fraser (particularly in the film’s opening sections). And while “Lion” isn’t the kind of drama that demands risky storytelling, it is one that has within it a whole world of emotional topography that is disappointingly scrolled over instead of mapped out. [C]