If “Lion” was a work of complete fiction, there’s no doubt it would invite skepticism over its unbelievable plot.
The fact that this – a story about an Indian boy, Saroo, losing his family and finding them again decades later as a grown man – is a true story is astounding enough in its own right. But Garth Davis doesn’t simply rely on immense emotional appeal for his feature directorial debut. He works to make the climax as satisfying as possible, via two hours of compelling and superbly-written narrative that certainly earns its place in the Best Picture race.
Chief among the things that elevate “Lion” from good to great is the decision to make the story linear, when it could have been told through flashbacks that would have detracted from its magnitude.
And one of the reasons that works so well is the casting of Sunny Pawar, the result of auditioning reportedly 4,000 boys for the role of young Saroo who finds himself hundreds of miles from home after falling asleep on a train. Pawar is unexpectedly incredible in the role, the cries for his family as heart-wrenching as the hopeless face he adopts after wandering around Calcutta for weeks.
Simply put, his performance is more evidence that it’s perhaps time to seriously think about including a Best Child Performance in the Academy Awards.
There’s little dialogue in this portion of “Lion,” a decision that Davis said was influenced by the poetic first act of Pixar’s “Wall•E.”
Instead, Luke Davies’ work behind the camera paints an intensely morose picture of young Saroo’s plight. The audience gets a sense of India’s vast spaces and even more vast oceans of people, as well as just how much bigger Calcutta would have seemed to a young, lost Saroo.
Eventually Saroo is placed in an orphanage, through which he would eventually be adopted by Sue and John Brierley, an Australian family looking to make a better life for one of India’s tens of thousands of children that go missing every year.
Saroo grows into a motivated young man played by Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame, having taken on the accent of his adoptive family. When a particular detail of his childhood finds its way into Saroo’s life – despite the presumed cultural and geographic barriers – he begins to obsess over finding his family, though it’s a slow internal mission that he initially rejects.
It’s at this point in “Lion” that it becomes thematically compelling, with Davis exploring Saroo’s mindset of someone torn by the guilt of separating himself from his family and struggling to justify calling Australia home when he increasingly sees his Indian brother everywhere he goes.
The film’s cohesiveness also falters a bit in this middle act. While we feel like we are with Saroo at every pivotal point of his life as a lost boy not knowing which way to go to return home, there isn’t as much of that connective tissue with Patel’s Saroo.
In one scene he is satisfied with his decision to not try and find his family, and seemingly not much time later he has quit his job, becoming a man struggling with his identity while falling asleep on Google Earth trying to find whatever landmarks he can to create a virtual route home.
It doesn’t detract too much from the film, though. Patel and Rooney Mara (playing the part of Saroo’s girlfriend who pushes him to find his family) turn in great performances. Nicole Kidman is particularly powerful as Saroo’s adoptive mother, no doubt channeling a certain part of herself in the role – Kidman herself is an adoptive mother, which allowed her to bond with the real-life Sue Brierley.
Kidman’s might be the most praiseworthy performance of “Lion,” although the aforementioned Pawar gives her a legitimate run for her money as he carries the film’s first 50 minutes or so
The profound impact of watching “Lion” lies in Davis choosing to tell a very raw, emotional and – in some ways – straightforward story. He doesn’t invent the wheel in regards to how to tell a story, but he knows the story he wants to tell. Most importantly, he knows it’s an intimate one, already powerful in its conclusion.
It lends to the majesty of “Lion” that it isn’t exactly dripping with optimism, the story also dealing with the complex relationships that come with adoption.
But what the story lacks as a bursting fountain of positivity in its middle act, its final 20 or so minutes make up for in total, unabashed catharsis, like safely letting out the deepest of breaths in an unfamiliar atmosphere. It’s a spectacular final act, the accentuation on the audience’s initial investment.
One of the most interesting aspects of “Lion” is its juxtaposition of a pixelated India on Google Earth versus the very real, endless landscapes we witness early on. But even more than simply a parable about the power of technology, “Lion” is a believable testimony to the resolve of Saroo, a rare happy ending to a very real hell for millions of Indian children.
It forces us to rethink what we may think of as being culturally isolated, and does so with a roaring sense of timelessness.
David Lynch is the editor-in-chief at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at editorinchief @dailylobo.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.