Pack some tissues for “Lion”, a true and emotional journey
Directed by: Garth Davis
Written by: Luke Davies, based upon the book, “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley
Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Rose, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, and David Wenham
“Lion” - In 2016, I imagine that a vast majority of kindergartners probably do not have mountains of responsibility or stress. I am not familiar with the average kindergarten curriculum these days, but when I went to school – about 150 years ago - I remember memorizing my phone number, learning to tie my shoes and understanding that the word “button” began with the letter B. From my recollection, life was fairly anxiety-free with the exception of taking that big step of climbing on the yellow school bus.
This is not the case for a Saroo (Sunny Pawar) in 1986 India.
With one incredibly costly - but completely innocent - mistake, Saroo becomes lost from his tiny village of “Ganestalay” and ends up miles and miles away in Calcutta, and the film “Lion”, from first time feature-film director Garth Davis, chronicles his journey. Davis structures the picture, based upon Saroo Brierley’s book, “A Long Way Home”, into two distinct halves: Saroo’s misstep as a child and his attempt to reunite with his family as an adult (Dev Patel). Although the latter introduces substantive material, the former works better cinematically.
Pawar is a mesmerizing little actor, as he convincingly portrays the emotions of a lost, 5-year-old boy, without the comfort of his mother Kamla (Priyanka Rose), brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and sister Shekila (Khushi Solanki). Davis and Pawar truly capture the utter despair involved, as Saroo screams out for “Guddu” and “Mum” over and over within a sea of busy strangers at a train station or while painfully alone with no one to listen. Eventually, his cries for help become muted to the resignation that no one will answer, and Saroo’s helplessness and that sick feeling in his stomach transmit from the screen to the audience, along with gentle prodding on our collective tear ducts.
The story takes a distinct turn in the second act. Many years later, a small event triggers a 20-something Saroo to search for his family. Saroo’s pursuit becomes manic and obsessive at times, and he feels deep guilt for putting hit mother, brother and sister through distressing worry for two decades. The problem is no one has heard of his hometown of “Ganestalay”, so he has to somehow retrace his steps from 20 years ago to find it. Fortunately, the modern conveniences of 2007 - such as the Internet - exist, so Saroo might have the right tools to find his invisible needle in a country-sized haystack.
While he combs through countless electronic searches, he also turns his living room walls into a scene reminiscent of “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), with pins and strings darting over countless directions on maps of India. Saroo agonizes, but unlike the first portion of the movie, it seems more difficult to translate his sudden feelings of despair. Davis injects several flashbacks originating from Saroo’s memory, but they become repetitive and a little clumsy. Since Saroo pushes away his supportive girlfriend (Rooney Mara), many times Patel is left to his own devices to convey angst, and generally speaking, Google searches are not terribly engaging as filmmaking instruments.
The movie does introduce two engaging constants in Saroo’s life, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), who certainly bring a calming and stable presence. Davis devotes significant supporting screen time for Kidman, and she delivers a solid performance in presenting unwavering devotion to Saroo.
Davis, Patel and the rest of the cast and filmmakers carry the same devotion to the story, as Saroo attempts to take an unfathomable leap to correct an unsuspecting boy’s poorly-timed misstep.
As an adult, your only responsibility is to pack enough tissues before leaving for the theatre.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.