How much do you remember about being 5 years old? Your parents, your siblings, maybe going to kindergarten? But if you were suddenly separated from that life and found yourself thousands of miles away from home, where you didn’t know anybody and couldn’t speak the language, what would your childhood self do? Could you explain to anybody where you lived? How would you ever get home?
That’s the dilemma for Saroo, the intrepid little boy at the heart of Lion, a compelling, fact-based tale of love, family, courage, and unbreakable bonds. The feature directing debut of Garth Davis, the film was scripted by Luke Davies from the nonfiction memoir A Long Way Home, by the real-life Saroo Brierly, a child from rural West Bengal who got lost on the teeming streets of Calcutta and survived for a year before being adopted by a couple in Australia. Twenty years later, he set out to find his birth family. This is his amazing story.
Davis is smart to tell the story in chronological order, amping up audience investment in Saroo. He’s played as a child with both impishness and profound gravity by Sunny Pawar, in his film debut. In the latter half of the movie, Dev Patel is wonderful as the adult Saroo, fiercely loyal to the adoptive Australian parents who raised him (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), yet haunted by elusive memories of the family he lost.
The story begins in 1986, with little Saroo (Pawar) and his big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) on their daily rounds. While their mother (the lovely Priyanka Bose) works as a day laborer, the boys scavenge along the railroad tracks that run near their village, climbing aboard trains to steal lumps of coal from the open coal cars, and collecting coins dropped between seats in the passenger cars. They bring the spoils home down a couple of narrow alleyways to the one room they share with their mother and sister.
Guddu is Saroo’s mentor and protector, and the brothers go everywhere together. But the boys get separated near a train yard one night, after the exhausted Saroo crawls into an out-of-service train car and falls asleep, waiting for Guddu. By the time he wakes up, the train—decommissioned and making its final journey—is halfway to Calcutta. The car doors are locked on either end, there are no stops, and even though Saroo bangs on the windows and screams for help when the train slows down to go through villages, no one pays any attention to him.
Released at last into thronging Calcutta, Saroo speaks only Hindi, not the prevailing Bengali; in the rare moments when anybody bothers to listen to him, he mispronounces the name of his village, while the only name he knows for his mother is “Mum.” After many Dickensian adventures on the streets, he’s incarcerated in an orphanage, from which he is adopted by Sue and John Brierly (Kidman and Wenham) from Tasmania.
Twenty years later, a completely assimilated adult Saroo (Patel) is going to business school for hotel management. (Pretty funny, if you associate Patel with his role in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies.) Increasingly haunted by random, buried childhood memories, he becomes obsessed with finding the family he left behind, via the recently introduced Google Earth program.
Desperate to assure the adoptive parents he loves that his search is not a rejection of them, Saroo apologizes to Sue that, in taking in himself and another Indian youth, the troubled Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), they have “adopted our pasts as well.” Which sets up Kidman’s powerful and surprising speech about why Sue wanted to adopt.
Lion stirs emotions, but the storytelling is straightforward, not cloying. It slows down a bit in scenes with Saroo’s girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara), an invented character who doesn’t really add much to the story. (Although their romance gives Patel a chance to relax and goof around between dramatic peaks.) But its best moments dramatize the plight of the 11 million children living on the street in India, and celebrates the random acts of compassion, however small or large, by which we can choose to live our lives.
*** (out of four)
With Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, and Nicole Kidman. Written by Luke Davies. Directed by Garth Davis. A Weinstein Company release. Rated PG-13. 129 minutes.