Mark Reviews Movies



3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Garth Davis

Cast: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Divian Ladwa, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and some sensuality)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 11/25/16 (limited); 12/25/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 22, 2016

The emotional impact of Lion is sneaky. There's a cumulative effect at work here. The emotional undercurrent builds and builds, without drawing attention to itself, until it releases in a climactic sequence that hits with surprising intensity.

The film tells a true story about a little boy who becomes lost and, as a man who's about 5,000 miles from his original home, attempts to find from where he came. It's a story that could be filled with an assortment of manipulative moments and techniques, but director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies tell it straight, trusting the particulars of the story—as improbable or downright impossible as they may seem—and the essential humanity of its characters to carry the tale.

There are two, distinct sections to the story of Saroo Brierley, whose memoir A Long Way Home provides the basis for Davies' script. The first follows five-year-old Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar) at his home in India. He is figuratively attached to the hip of his elder brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). The two look along the railroad tracks for any change or anything they could sell, and Guddu has to work on construction sites to help provide for his family. The boys seem to have their own lives, separate from their mother (Priyanka Bose) and sister. When they come home after a day of scavenging with a couple bags of milk, their mother asks where they got it, and the boys give each other a look, a smile, and a giggle.

Guddu has the chance to work some night hours, and Saroo pleads with his brother to take him along so that he can help. Despite his misgivings, Guddu takes Saroo with him. The boy falls asleep on the train ride over, so Guddu leaves his exhausted brother on a bench at the train station to sleep, making his brother promise to stay put until he returns.

Saroo awakens, uncertain of his surroundings, and begins looking for his brother. While searching an empty train, he falls asleep again. When Saroo wakes up this time, the train is moving, non-stop, toward an unknown destination.

The film's harrowing first half, which eventually brings Saroo to Calcutta, proceeds with minimal dialogue, since the boy finds himself in place where the majority of people speak Bengali, not Saroo's native Hindi. Once he realizes that no one will be able to help him, Saroo begins a life without a home on the streets of the city.

Davis presents this section in near-documentary style, as Saroo attempts to get help from various strangers, tries to find places to sleep, and runs from a mysterious group of men who chase after and snatch up other street kids (While escaping these men, the boy runs past a transit officer, who stands by and does nothing to stop it). The sense of desperation is palpable, both because of Davis' approach and Pawar's performance, which is equally effective in portraying Saroo as the happy, carefree boy at the film's start and as the confused, frightened boy whose survival is uncertain.

The second half skips ahead to Saroo's life 25 years later. Now played by Dev Patel, his home is on another continent—Australia. He was adopted by Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham) as a child. He has an adoptive brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who has emotional and psychological issues after the experiences of his own childhood. Saroo is attending classes and meets Lucy (Rooney Mara), a character whose existence in the film takes up time that might have been better spent establishing the dynamics of Saroo's new family. While at a party, the sight of an Indian pastry brings back the long-forgotten memory of his home and family.

There's a lot of plot here, although the story itself is fairly straightforward. After the physical difficulties of the first half, the second half concentrates on Saroo's conflicted feelings as to whether or not to find his biological family. Patel's performance is in a similar, internalized register as his younger counterpart. The emotional burden of that inner conflict is the focus here. He wants to find his family. He has no idea how to do so, and he worries that even the desire to see his own mother again would be a betrayal of Sue and John, who have no children other than himself and Mantosh. There are scenes of pained hesitancy and obsession here that ring true.

The whole of this section does. It's unfortunate that the subplot with Lucy, which may be biographically accurate but feels like exists for extraneous conflict, takes up as much time as it does here. The few scenes between Saroo and his adoptive family, especially a conversation with Sue about her reasons for adopting him and Mantosh, quickly get to heart of the matter (Kidman's strong performance as a woman with a great capacity for empathy helps immensely). That's essential, because Saroo's search, using a convenient internet tool (It doesn't feel like the advertisement it might look like), takes up a significant portion of this section.

The film doesn't delve too deeply into the characters' lives, but what we do get from them is genuinely affecting, nonetheless, because of the strength of its central performances. The unlikely story of Lion is the focus here. Thankfully, Davis doesn't treat the fact of the story's authenticity as the key element. He gives us reasons to care about it, too.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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