Garth Davis scored six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, for his directorial debut Lion, an adaptation of the incredible true story of Saroo Brierley from his book A Long Way Home. While certainly a good movie, I don’t know if it really warranted that level of praise but much of that could be attributed to executive producer Harvey Weinstein, who has a long track record of getting unexpected movies nominated for awards. Now Lion is on Blu-ray and the story of a young man’s journey from India to Australia and back to India in search of his identity can tug on the heartstrings of your parents and grandparents.
In an impoverished corner of India, young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) scavenges with his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) in the hopes of finding something to provide for the family. One fateful evening, Saroo waits for his brother who never arrives. The young boy sneaks onto a train to get some sleep and awakes to find the train in motion, barreling down the tracks. The 5-year-old child seeks help to find his way home and nobody is able to determine where he came from. Eventually, Saroo is adopted by John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman), who take the young boy to their native Australia. Years later, Saroo (Dev Patel) is fully grown and attending college. He soon finds himself a girlfriend in Lucy (Rooney Mara) in a hotel management class. When Saroo encounters other Indian classmates it stirs an identity crisis in the young man, wondering just where his cultural identity lies. It then sets him on a path to find his home using the emerging technology of Google Earth to create a search radius. Saroo soon embarks on the journey of a lifetime in search of the family he lost on that one night all those years ago.
The first half of the film that tracks the young Saroo’s lost journey through India is incredibly heartbreaking cinema. Sunny Pawar is an adorable young actor but the despair of being separated from his family and his anxiety breaks through his cute little veneer. These scenes really illustrate a failure of the countries institutions with its impoverished youths, many of whom are shuffled between orphanages before being adopted.
As Saroo’s adoptive parents, David Wenham and Nicole Kidman gives strong performances that are overflowing with empathy. Their home gets a bit more crowded when the Brierley’s adopt another Indian Mantosh (played in his youth by Keshav Jadhav and a grown adult by Divian Ladwa). Mantosh struggles with behavioral issues that seem to stem from a form of mental illness, but it creates an uneasy dynamic in the Brierley household with Mantosh jealous of his adoptive brother’s success.
Where Lion runs into trouble is when Saroo begins searching for his geographical origins. It leads to a situation where Garth Davis’ film become obsessed with the nature of his search and not the internal struggle between Saroo’s cultural identity. Whether fiction or non-fiction, there’s something inherently un-cinematic about watching a character use Google to solve the story’s central issue. Saroo’s emerging obsession with finding his roots causes a number of rifts in his life, including fracturing his relationship with Lucy and creating a sadness within his adoptive mother. It leads to one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film where Sue tearfully confesses that her and her husband decided to adopt instead of having their own children. It wasn’t a matter of biological necessity and you can see the emotional devastation Dev Patel’s face in this scene.
Even when Lion gets uneven in its cinematic portrayal of Saroo’s search through Google, it works as a whole because of one moment – it sticks the landing. The end of Lion finds Saroo reunited with his birth mother and his long lost sister, and it’s a rousing moment that brings the emotional journey of Luke Davies’s screenplay to a fitting conclusion. I don’t think Lion is a great movie but it has great moments, and the heartwarming ending is one of those great moments and the reason that people feel good when the credits begin to roll.
The special features on the Blu-ray consist of what the disc refers to as “galleries,” which are basically just featurettes that explore the making of the film and the real life story behind it. It’s fascinating to see the real life Saroo reflect on this remarkable journey and how the story is being brought to the screen. The rest of the featurettes are rather rote, with the cast and crew heaping praise on one another and discussing the emotional nature of the film.
Lion is a movie which is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser and has found an audience because of its uplifting and inspirational nature. Sure, I would’ve liked the movie a lot more if it remained focused on the struggle for Saroo to find his cultural identity as opposed to his extensive searching of Google Earth, but it’s easy to overlook those flaws when you have powerful performances at every turn and an ending that works so well you’ll be reaching for the tissues.
An incredible true story, Lion has a great start, so-so middle, and fantastic ending that will have you reaching for the tissues in this story of family and cultural identity.