There’s a fair amount of ambiguity in the first half of Lion, where the details of what’s happening are unclear. It’s a little disconcerting if you’re a viewer, but it would certainly be far more unsettling if you were the five-year-old boy navigating the chaotic and dangerous events that make up the early part of the story. And that’s the point of tying viewers to the main character’s limited understanding of what’s happening: Lion is entirely built around the perspective of its central character – Saroo Brierly.
Despite what the trailers and posters might make you think, this is not a love story between Saroo and Lucy (Rooney Mara). It’s not really a family story about Saroo and his adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and adopted brother, Mantosh (played by both Keshav Jadhav and Divian Ladwa). It’s also not a story of the mechanics of using Google Earth to find a small town in India about which you have almost no information. Lion is, from start to finish, a story about Saroo.
The film is based on Brierly’s memoir “A Long Way Home,” so in many ways, that singular focus makes sense. His story is so exceptional that it makes for great screenplay fodder. As a young boy, Saroo goes into an inactive train car while looking for his brother and falls asleep. When he wakes, he is alone and trapped on the now moving train. A couple of days and 1600 km later, he finally exits the train, unable to speak the local language or find anyone who can help him find his home and family. After a few wrenching months on the street and then in an orphanage, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple. Later, as an adult, Saroo is drawn back into his past and begins to struggle with the guilt of having left his first family behind.
Screenwriter Luke Davies and director Garth Davis have clearly made a decision to focus this film on a person and his perspective, as opposed to a broader story of family and discovery. The narrative of the movie is the equivalent of a first-person narrative in a book: it’s more consistently focused on this author’s compelling perspective than we sometimes see in memoir adaptations. But while that decision is deliberate, the success of the style is mixed.
The decision to narrow the lens of the story to Saroo’s perspective works most effectively in the first third or so of the film. Much of the credit for that goes to Sunny Pawar, who plays Saroo as a boy who is exceptional in his ability to draw viewers into the story. It’s impossible to look away from him whether you’re watching him realize the implications of being alone on a quickly moving train, or willing him to understand that a place or person is not safe.
The single-minded focus on Saroo works less well in the later scenes when he is in his late 20s. Dev Patel, who plays Saroo as an adult, does a solid job as a man trying to decide what to do with the anguish and guilt that have increasingly begun to plague him, but this section of the story feels surprisingly common for a man who has lived through such extraordinary circumstances. Where the early parts of the film focus on young Saroo’s navigating a variety of ongoing external conflicts, the conflict in the later parts of the film focus more on his internal struggle. It’s not hard to understand why adult Saroo is paralyzed by his distress and indecision, but given the singular focus on him, the more stagnant nature of Saroo’s story as an adult slows down the film. There aren’t that many unique takes on the story of a guy trying to balance his feelings, his relationships, and his decisions. At this time of year in particular, “men in emotional turmoil” movies aren’t hard to come by. Lion, while good, isn’t necessarily strong enough to keep it from getting lost in the mix.
Still, the film is well-made, and the unique nature of Saroo’s story combined with Pawar’s award-worthy performance may be enough to make it stand out. As Saroo’s Australian parents, Wenham and especially Kidman are also very good and add another layer to his story. And – spoiler alert, I guess – it would be hard to top the emotional payoff of the film’s conclusion. Lion is at its best when Saroo is actually on a journey as opposed to contemplating one, but the fact that he finds his destination in the end may be enough for audiences.