With a riveting first half and probing questions about family, Lion's careful attention to life’s cruelty balanced with an inspiring tenderness and optimism make it a strong 4 out of 5.
It’s tricky to tell a true story well, but director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies find great success in adapting the tale of Saroo Brierley from his book A Long Way Home. Saroo (the enchanting Sunny Pawar) is a five-year-old boy from a small Indian village whose big heart and humor outmatch his tiny frame. When he gets separated from his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) at a train station, he mistakenly boards a train which takes him over a thousand kilometers from home. He doesn't speak the dominant language, nobody has heard of his hometown, and his surroundings are not friendly to lost children, but he manages to survive long enough to find his way to an orphanage. Eventually an adoption service places him with a loving Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), but after many years, a grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel), unable to quiet his memories and regret, determines to track down his birthplace and family.
Almost everything about this film is handled with care and skill, but a few things stand out. First and foremost, Sunny Pawar as young Saroo (whose perspective carries the first half of the film) is an absolute gem; his embodiment of this wise and quick-thinking child makes for an immersive viewing experience. Davis' cinematic choices allow us to follow Saroo's (more innocent) perspective, while also exposing us to the terrible danger and fear that surround him.
As an American viewer, it was painful to watch hordes of people ignoring this lost child - to get a glimpse into a culture where there are, perhaps, too many lost children to notice just one. The film also breaks open the painful, dark side of international adoption - showing that a child's life never begins with "first-world family waiting for their new child with open arms." It makes the viewer ask painful questions about child abuse and mental health, the nature of wealth and poverty, and whether they might have been ignoring (or even complicit in) troubling systems.
The second act of the film is not nearly as riveting at the first half, largely because Saroo's search for his family is done mostly from a computer. Additionally, because the film's arc spans 25 years, we don't really get a satisfying amount of development with his his adoptive parents, adopted brother, or girlfriend Lucy (played with emotional nuance by Rooney Mara). However, something about Patel's energy and sensitivity matches so well with his young counterpart Pawar that these elements feel more like byproducts of genre, rather than cinematic defect.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
The most explicitly religious moment is when a hungry little boy is shown folding his hands respectfully before a shrine before taking some of the offering (food) to eat for himself. However, many probing worldview questions run deep in this film: do our families (cultures, nations) truly treat children as fully human? If not, what would that look like? Are our efforts to be noble and generous ever motivated by naivete and self righteousness? What does family really mean? What defines us the most: our blood and DNA, our memories, or our relationships and choices?
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and some sensuality
- Language/Profanity: "God" is used as an exclamation.
- Sexuality/Nudity: A couple is shown kissing/in bed a handful of times, in various states of undress, but no nudity is shown. A man is seen without a shirt. A man lies down on a bed next to a child in an uncomfortable way.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: A boy is trapped on an empty train and screams to be let out and for passersby to "save him." Men chase abandoned children through the halls of a train station in an attempt to kidnap them (some succeed). We briefly meet a character and get the impression he might be a ringleader in some kind of child sex-trafficking operation. Later, in an orphanage, the guards release a terrified and protesting young boy into the custody of a few men who "promise to return him by morning." Several children appear to wrestle with mental illness, and we see no medical attention given to them.
Drugs/Alcohol: People are shown smoking and drinking in a few scenes. One character is portrayed as a drug abuser/addict.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Those who appreciate and notice food as a cultural connector and signifier. Lovers of landscape, cinematic scenery, and emotional scores. Those with a heart for children, or who love inspirational real-life stories.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Those unimpressed by movies that run on the predictable side, or that adhere closely to real-life rather than purely compelling narrative.
Lion, directed by Garth Davis, opened in limited theaters November 25, 2016, wider January 6, 2017; available for home viewing April 11, 2017. It runs 120 minutes and stars Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, and David Wenham. Watch the trailer for Lion here.
Debbie Holloway is a storyteller, creator, critic and advocate having adventures in Brooklyn, New York.
Publication date: January 13, 2017