Like any kid, five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is enamored of his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). Saroo shadows Guddu everywhere, helping him do things like steal coal from trains to trade for milk for their penurious mother (Priyanka Bose) and little sister (Khushi Solanki) in their tiny village in India. After begging his brother to take him to “work” with him in a nearby city one night, both boys quickly learn that Saroo is too young to hack the late shift. Guddu leaves Saroo on a bench at a train station, promising to be right back. Saroo dozes off, waking up on an empty platform in the middle of the night. Scared and maybe cold, he gets on a vacant train and drifts back to sleep in one of the compartments. He’s jolted up while the train is speeding through terrain he’s never seen before.
The train takes Saroo to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), where he must fend for himself. He doesn’t know the city, the language, or even his mother’s name. Kolkata is dangerous for a kid: Saroo is nearly abducted at the train station. He meets Noor (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a seemingly nice lady who takes him in. Saroo senses that her creepy friend Rawa (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) has nefarious plans for him, so he bails. A man (Riddhi Sen) eating in a café takes Saroo to the police, who turn him over to an orphanage. They try to find Saroo’s mother, but he’s unable to provide any useful information. Mrs. Sood (Deepti Naval) teaches him English and manners. An Australian couple, John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman), adopt him.
To use a line from the Beastie Boys, you think this story’s over but it’s ready to begin. Cut to 2008: Saroo (Dev Patel) is grown up, Westernized, and starting school for hospitality management. During introductions, he tells his classmates that he’s from Calcutta but that’s about all he knows. While attending a friend’s party, he goes to the kitchen to get a beer and sees a plate of jalebi, an orange deep-fried Indian pastry. It triggers his memory, and he becomes obsessed with finding his “real” family.
Adapted from Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home, Lion plays out as two movies: one about young Saroo, and the other about adult Saroo. On an emotional level, Lion is a beautiful and powerful accomplishment—I defy anyone not to feel something from this film, which deals with identity, family, and home. Even so, it’s flawed. First-time feature director Garth Davis is really heavy-handed with the tears, so much that Lion comes off as trying too hard—manipulative, even. Davis connects the two stories, but he treats them vastly differently. The pace of young Saroo’s story is far superior: it flows naturally, unlike adult Saroo’s, which is choppy and abrupt. Young Saroo’s story is insightful and lyrical, while adult Saroo’s is too often inelegant. I found the unevenness distracting. Plus, the apparitions of Guddu and Saroo’s mother in Australia got silly after awhile. It shouldn’t be difficult to tell from the first three paragraphs of this entry which story I found more engaging.
Even with its flaws, Lion is still a good movie—well worth the two hours it eats of your life. The acting all around is superb, though Lucy (Rooney Mara) is a bit superfluous. Patel is great, but Pawar is the star here; it’s hard to believe this is his first film. Sia’s “Never Give Up,” which plays over the closing credits, will get stuck in your head for days.
(AMC River East) B-