Saroo Brierly got separated from his family in India when he was just a boy and spent his whole childhood raised in Australia by a foster family. It wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he used Google to trace down a past he could hardly recall and a home he didn’t know would still be there.
What makes “Lion” special is that it shows that Saroo’s story isn’t entirely unique. It spends its first hour immersed in young Saroo’s perspective. It observantly and anecdotally illustrates the livelihood of poverty-stricken children across India. Saroo’s story feels profound not only because of the journey toward a tearful reunion, but because it devotes so much time at the eye level of this young boy.
Director Garth Davis avoids working in flashback and tells Saroo’s story chronologically. When he gets stuck on a train and is taken thousands of miles away from his hometown with no sense of where he’s from or how to get back, Davis smartly eliminates much of the dialogue. It might not seem obvious that different regions of India have entirely different languages and dialects, but Davis keeps the film quiet and modest to show how lost Saroo really is. He stages low angle tracking shots that put the entire film at his line of sight. Saroo comes across other orphan children in foreboding underground corridors and he sprints away on lonely bridges in dark, golden hued images that convey the gravity of the situation but preserve the beauty of the home and culture he’s leaving behind.
The young Sunny Pawar, six years old at the time of filming, carries “Lion’s” first hour solely on his back. He’s confident and unhesitant but has the furrowed look of fear that he may never get back home. At one point he asks a social worker in a large orphanage, “Did you really look for my mum,” and we know how this journey across India has prepared him for the wider world.
When Saroo grows up into Dev Patel, “Lion” can’t help but lose a little steam, but Davis shifts gear into developing the relationship between Saroo and his mother (Nicole Kidman). Mothers in these types of slick Oscar bait are typically more like Saroo’s Indian mother: angelic and one-dimensional. Kidman adds much needed depth, taking some of Saroo’s burden on herself, explaining that when they adopted him they chose to accept him and his baggage. It’s a touching mother-son bond.
Saroo’s story is beautiful, but Davis gives it weight with smart dramatic callbacks, be it Saroo’s mispronunciation of words or his love of a sizzling red snack. And stylish, yet modest filmmaking in its first half provides a richer perspective on how the other half lives. Seek this one out.
3 ½ stars