There are a lot of little miracles within Garth Davis' uplifting Lion that make the true story of Saroo Brierley seem like a fairy tale. Saroo's story was indeed destined to be brought to the screen. At the age of 5, he and his older brother Guddu set out to earn what little money they could to help their impoverished Indian family in Khandwa. Separated, Saroo found himself trapped on a train traveling more than 1600 kilometers to Calcutta. There he endured a terrible, dangerous few months on the streets before being adopted by a perfect Australian family. Years later with the help of Google Earth he set out to find the family he had lost.
Bring on the waterworks. Certainly there were plenty at tonight's Opening Night screening at the Middleburg Film Festival. Unquestionably Saroo's story is one that, at least initially, captures the imagination and tugs at the heartstrings. Nobody likes to see children suffering in the way young Saroo does, especially when played with such astounding emotional impact as young newcomer Sunny Pawar. If the entire movie focused solely on his treacherous trek across India, that would be enough. The opening act follows Saroo and Geddu (Abhishek Bharate) as they steal coal from passing trains in hopes of selling them for meager bags of milk, or whatever they can get to help their mother, who works as a laborer carrying rocks. Saroo is an energetic, brave kid, a true lion, and when his older brother sets out for dangerous night work he refuses to be left behind. But Saroo is still a child and grows tired quickly, which allows for the siblings to be separated.
Davis is an extraordinary filmmaker when it comes to visually fleshing out a complicated, perilous world. He directed episodes of Jane Campion's lovely and complex Top of the Lake, and brings some of the same sensibilities here. These early scenes with Saroo immediately grip us as the child navigates one danger after another; passing trains, crowded streets, dark alleys. It only becomes more grim when he arrives in Calcutta, lost, alone, and unsure, surrounded by strangers looking to take advantage. At any point he could have been swept up and disappeared forever, and in a couple of cases that very nearly happens. So it is a miracle that he ends up adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham), who proceed to love and take care of him for 25 years as if he were their natural-born child.
It's here that the film treads into conventional territory and too often comes skidding to a halt. Now played by a wild-haired Dev Patel, Saroo's sole ambition is to learn hotel management and make lots of money. He's got a good head on his shoulders, though, and attracts the attention of Lucy (Rooney Mara), an American girl in his class. While at a party (for hotel management enthusiasts or something?), the smell of jalebi, the one food he was never able to afford back home in India, causes a flood of memories that send Saroo on a quest to find his missing family. Well, if it can truly be a quest sitting on the couch using Google Earth, because that is what Saroo does for countless scenes of diminishing emotional value.
One issue with Lion that prevents it from fully-realizing Saroo's amazing story is that so much of what he's going through is frustratingly internal. Saroo is stuck between a rock and a hard place emotionally. On the one hand he's overcome with grief over the family and culture that he's lost, but at the same time he doesn't want to disrespect the people who have built a comfortable, caring life for him. Patel, playing on many of the same themes of identity and upward mobility as in his breakout Slumdog Millionaire, fully expresses Saroo's growing discontent with his life of privilege. Although you'll grow tired of the long, morose stares as he grows more isolated from the people he loves. Just as good is Kidman in a smaller-than-expected role, especially when a distraught Sue, who has always seen Saroo as a blessing fulfilled, begins to see him slip away. Mara is wasted as a character who is there solely to be a symbol of Saroo's current status, and what few romantic scenes they share lack chemistry. For a film that so often highlights how badly things could have gone for Saroo, we spend precious little time with his adoptive brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), whose mental instability is only part of the reason why he has rejected Sue and John's parentage.
While Saroo's Googling isn't all that interesting, it does allow him, and us, to relive some of his happier childhood moments in a new context. What Saroo ultimately finds is no secret; he's been in newspapers for years and wrote a book, "A Long Way Home", which recounts how he found his mother and son. The reunion is as satisfying for us as it must have been for them, and Davis gives audiences everything they had been quietly hoping for, along with a touch of sadness over what can't be recovered. Lion plays safe more often than necessary, but it definitely roars when it counts.
Rating: 3 out of 5