I have a special affinity for travel movies or any instance where the setting is a country I’m dying to explore. Queen of Katwe was a favorite this year because of its depiction of Kampala with colorful fashion and lively marketplaces. Garth Davis’ feature film debut Lion whisks the viewer away to the vast landscape of India beginning in the tiny rural town of Ganesh Tilai to the bustling streets of Calcutta as he chronicles the journey of Saroo, a five-year-old boy whose accidental nap on a train lands him a thousand miles from home and seemingly orphaned. This true story continues further as he is adopted by an Australian couple and once an adult uses Google Earth to retrace his steps back home. While I expected this to be a cliche, flashback-laden film as Saroo (Dev Patel) remembers his harrowing past, instead finds its own artistry by a straightforward, chronological telling. It begins with young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) leading up to that dreadful night and lets us follow the boy for what became a difficult and death-defying year till his adoption and relocation. This may appear like an easier way to present a narrative but it becomes quite a bold choice to not have your bonafide lead actor show up until roughly halfway through the film. It also places a lot of Patel’s shoulders as we are fully informed of his past by the time he arrives and we expect to see all that reflected in the mannerisms and choices of adult Saroo.
The journey of child Saroo is by far the most compelling because of the world of 1980’s India from the poor townships to the corrupt city filled with both friendly strangers and nefarious predators. Saroo meets many and narrowly escapes more dire fates. The film doesn’t explore the luck that landed him with wealthy white parents but like other instances to come, a lot is based on chance. Once we fast forward to Dev Patel, the pace slows down, almost padding its runtime as Saroo’s crisis of identity and disconnect from his past become his obsession. Relationships are a thematic cornerstone in the narrative with Saroo being ripped from his brother and mother in India and having them replaced with upper class adopted parents as well as a less adjusted adopted younger brother. While you do feel his deep connection with his biological family considering he calls out their names every five minutes when lost, you don’t see enough interactions with his Australian parents (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) to feel the strength of their bond. This missed opportunity is partially due to I believe the movie’s need to have the plot move on to him being an adult though I would have been satisfied with an entire movie starring Pawar. There’s also the addition of the girlfriend character here played by Rooney Mara who can’t handle her emotionally tormented boyfriend as he searches the internet aimlessly. Her character adds little to his quest and rather detracts from the valuable time that could be spent developing the mother who Saroo is afraid to admit his hunt to or his drug addicted, mentally challenged brother that seemed to have lasting damage on the diverse family. Kidman delivers a stirring monologue about how she thought it to be destiny that she adopted these boys but this confession isn’t earned because she merely drifts in and out of the narrative. I wanted to get to know her better and not just because she looked frighteningly similar to my mom with her red hair and 80’s style.
Even with its narrative pitfalls, the film is much deeper and genuinely convincing than most of the crisis of identity plots. Because we’re presented with Saroo’s entire history to start, the resolution is so fulfilling and deserving of the tears it pulled out of me. Other movies make those elating endings come off manipulative but thanks to strong performances and efficient storytelling, Lion stands out as a memorable odyssey. I will say though, they should have workshopped that title more, or at least take the name of the book “A Long Way Home.” You spend the whole time wondering why this movie is called Lion when there are no such animals in the movie, nor is there mention of it, nor does any character lend themselves to the theme of courage often associated with lions. It comes as an afterthought in postscript that Saroo’s name means lion which is treated like some grand reveal but is actually completely underwhelming. Sometimes bad titles happen to good movies so while it doesn’t feel like a Lion, I’ll let it pretend it’s as majestic as one.