Barring a couple exceptions, American audiences generally don’t go for foreign films, especially when they chronicle harrowing subject matter. Prescribing a reason for this is pointless, as there certainly isn’t some nefarious motive behind this alienation. There just isn’t a market for these stories here. However, there is plenty of room for inspirational true tales of underdogs who triumph over adversity to swelling music and all that hubbub. With Lion, Garth Davis has created a Sunday-Night Sampler of these two styles. For all intents and purposes, he’s fused together two different short films to tell the tale of Saroo Brierley.
The first half of the film centers on Saroo (Sunny Pawar) as a young boy in India. When his brother Gaddu (Abhishek Bharate) brings Saroo along on a trip to find work, the two are separated in the middle of the night. Little Saroo finds himself on a train headed for Calcutta, where he is stranded for an extended period. However, he finds himself in luck when an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) bring him into their home. Saroo grows into a well adjusted young man (as Dev Patel takes over the role) who despite having lived a privileged life, is desperate to find the family he lost all those years ago.
Davis has no qualms with depicting the hardships that young Saroo is forced to face, putting us in the shoes of a small child lost in a world he doesn’t understand. He paints the streets of Calcutta as crowded and cutthroat. We can barely see over taller people’s heads as Saroo evades one danger after another. There is barely a safe patch of dirt for him to sleep on. These sequences are not only extremely visceral, but are presented entirely in Bengali and Hindi. It’s a intense and compromise-free first half.
This portion of the film is carried handily by Sunny Pawar, who has outclassed 2016 turns by actors decades older than him here. He draws us in right away with pure adorable innocence and then completely sells the instant transition into maturity that he has to make. In only a few minutes, the rapport between him and his brother is utterly lovable, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when it’s torn apart. Even when he’s not saying a word, there isn’t a moment where we don’t feel his pain. We can’t imagine anything gruesome happening to this poor kid, which makes the white-knuckle suspense all the more potent.
Then we transition into Saroo’s adult life with his new family, and the film takes on a decidedly different tone. While the emotional authenticity remains the same, everything starts to feel a bit more like a conventional biopic. We see Saroo in a much more prosperous position, in which he has far more agency in tracking down his home. What makes it work is the subtle and powerful performance by Dev Patel. With a thick Australian accent and those luscious locks, Patel disappears into the role. Saroo’s anxiety now comes less from danger, and more from separation from that danger. That may seem benign and is to a certain extent, but Patel’s work continues to keep us holding on. Kidman also shines as Saroo’s all too earnest adoptive mother, a devoted caregiver who desperately wants to help people beyond her circle of affluence. This is critically important, as in the wrong hands this relationship could have come off as a trite ‘white savior’ narrative straight out of The Blind Side. Thankfully, for as conventional as Lion gets, it never quite enters that territory.
Where the film starts to run into problems is in prioritizing the elements of Saroo’s college years to focus on. A great deal of time is spent with his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), and frankly, she couldn’t be less interesting. Mara does what she can, but the part is criminally underwritten. She exists entirely to further Saroo’s arc, with no district personality of her own. One minute she’s caressing Saroo in bed while telling him that she’s there for him no matter what, the next she’s caressing Saroo in bed while telling him that she feels ignored. Are you bored yet?
Meanwhile, there’s a much more compelling relationship set-up with Saroo’s adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who suffers from severe mental illness, that the film decides to completely ignore. We hear that Saroo is protective of him, but we never see that in action. Whenever Mantosh is on-screen he seems to only serve as a cheap emotional punchline. It’s a baffling choice, as the contrast between the two brotherly relationships should be the thematic centerpiece of the film. It wreaks of studio interference and ultimately wastes a lot of time. Davis does bring the film to a deeply touching and tender conclusion, though, which makes some of the more superfluous elements seem worth it.
Lion has moments of ferocious power, particularly in the first half. When we’re in Calcutta with young Saroo, it makes a strong case for being one of 2016’s best films. However, while the second half is still enjoyable, it’s sullied a little by conventional elements that are below the story the film is telling. At the end of the day, Davis succumbs to making the kind of film that ends with a fun little Sia pop song, which may make for a more palatable movie, but it keeps it short of being a great one. Seriously, though, what movie doesn’t have a Sia single over the credits these days?