[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Lion opens Friday in limited release.]
Between Sully and Lion, I’m forced to wonder: must all incredible true stories become major motion pictures? At least Lion has the benefit of being a journey with a narrative arc as opposed to a remarkable 208-second event. Director Garth Davis takes a controversial approach to his story, not because he does anything radical with it, but because it raises the question of whether or not there’s a better way to convey Saroo Brierley’s journey. Davis chooses to tell Saroo’s story chronologically, and it leads to an odd structure where we spend the first act walking alongside Saroo and then we’re asked to empathize with the traumatized adult who now searches for his home. Davis’ focus on the details on Saroo’s journey comes at the expense of the questions that journey raises, and it’s a movie that rarely pauses to consider what it means to be emotionally homeless.
In 1986 in Khandwa, India, young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) gets separated from his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and is carried away on a train to Calcutta, 1600 kilometers away. Over the next year, Saroo struggles to survive on the streets until he’s eventually put in an orphanage and adopted by a loving Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). As an adult (Dev Patel) in 2008, Saroo seems to have largely assimilated, but it becomes clear that he still considers himself “lost”. A friend suggests that he use the new site Google Earth to try and find his way back home. Saroo becomes obsessed with tracking down his hometown, and it causes him to push away his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) and his parents.
Lion is a tricky film. On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly bad about. It’s well shot, Patel gives a tremendous lead performance, and in the first act, Davis takes us into the harrowing world of children living on the streets of India. That first act is an odd approach to take, not because its material is uninteresting—young Saroo’s odyssey is fascinating and unnerving—but because its protagonist is mostly an observer. As a five-year-old boy, Saroo doesn’t have a rich inner life. He’s a scared kid who literally doesn’t even have the words to get home (he speaks Hindi but in Calcutta they speak Bengali). In some ways, I would have preferred a film that was solely about the lives of Indian street children because Davis paints a vivid portrait not just with what he shows, but with the dangers he implies.
However, when we meet up with adult Saroo, Lion becomes a different movie. I wouldn’t want to sacrifice the material with young Saroo, and yet I can’t help but wonder if the film would have benefitted by having that material presented as flashbacks so that pieces of Saroo’s past are unveiled as he tries to figure out how to physically return to his old life. Instead, presented chronologically with only a handful of minor flashbacks, Lion becomes a story about a man who has grown up without a home even though he had a loving family with the Brierleys.
Unfortunately, Davis doesn’t dwell enough on that inner conflict. We spend more time with Saroo looking at maps, looking at Google Earth, and pushing people away than we do with him considering the fact that he’s never really assimilated into Australian culture, but he also can’t find his old home. He’s lost between two worlds, and while Davis gives us glimpses of this emotional journey, Lion spends too much time on the wrong details. After the third or fourth time of Saroo clicking through Google Earth, we get the idea.
I don’t hate Lion, but I don’t particularly like it either. For all of the emotional uplift of Saroo’s journey, it’s a movie that left me oddly cold. There’s nothing singularly wrong or misguided about the film, and yet its entire structure leaves me to wonder if this is a story that could be told better or if it’s a story that needed to be a movie at all.