Remember the story of the lost boy who found his way home—across continents and decades—because of Google Earth?
That is the stranger-than-fiction story of Saroo Brierley, who at age five wandered onto a train that jettisoned him nearly a thousand miles from his humble Indian village, to the bustling streets and dangerous slums of Calcutta. After weeks scraping by as a beggar, Saroo was saved by an orphanage that placed him with a married couple in Australia. There, he was raised in safety and luxury previously unimaginable to him, but with no way to reconnect to the mother and siblings her left behind. However, all that changed 25 years later when Google Earth offered the tools to map his accidental train trek in a way previously unimaginable. His journey—first unveiled in the book A Long Way Home—is brought to the theaters with Lion. But it’s a rocky transition from life to page to screen.
Sure, on the surface this might seem exactly the kind of “based on true events” tale that filmmakers go gaga for. It’s a real story of human perseverance, loyalty and love conquering all, offering a plucky child to root for, drama sure to draw in an acclaimed cast, and a finale with a real and wondrous emotional wallop. But then there’s the whole Google Earth bit, a search that is depicted accurately as an angry young man futzing over satellite images with frustrated mouse-pad swipes. It makes for a pivotal section that is anything but cinematic. And the plotting lurches, bound by reality, making for a muddled though moving affair.
The screenplay by Luke Davies begins with young Saroo (Sunny Pawar, an arrestingly natural onscreen presence) playing and working with his adolescent brother. Together, they snatch coal from a rumbling train car, leaping off as the guards and an fast-approaching bridge threaten to snare them. After trading the stolen coal for sandwich bags of milk , the brothers run barefoot to the shack where their mother looks after their baby sister. To call there’s a simple life is an understatement. They live in abject poverty, sleeping on dirt and eating whatever can be scrounged. But Saroo is loved by his warm mother and his enthusiastic brother. He wants for nothing, save the occasional sweet. Then comes the night on the train where the tiny boy falls asleep onboard, waking into a terrible new world where he doesn’t speak the language and has no idea how to get home.
Lion spares audiences the grimmest of possibilities for homeless kids on these streets, as Saroo was spared them. But hints are given by scenes of other children being snatched by strange men, a skeevy gentleman with suspicious promises, and the off-screen sounds of late-night beatings of “bad” children in the orphanage. Director Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) rejects relishing in the human misery to be found in such poverty, focusing instead on Saroo’s journey, which transports this wide-eyed boy with tender brown eyes to the ease of Australia, where the the Brierleys (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) are overjoyed to meet their new son. This first half of the film is thoughtful, warm, yet spike with tension that’s released as soon as we see Kidman’s inviting smile shine upon the darling boy. But the second half, things get sloppy.
Dev Patel—surprisingly dashing with a rough and tumble surfer look—burst out of the Pacific and onto the scene as grown Saroo. A source of pride to his parents, he’s on a good career track, and got a lovely American girlfriend (Rooney Mara). But as a training program puts him in contact with Indians more in touch with their heritage and roots, Saroo suffers pangs of guilt over losing his own.
Patel does admirably with the internal struggle Saroo undergoes, transforming him from an outgoing charmer to a withdrawn recluse as the guilt of losing his first family and shame of hiding his search from his adoptive family eats away at him. Davis makes this conflict external by winding the boy’s memories of his brother full-bodied into his life and home, like a friendly yet unrelenting ghost. But the script chokes off this arc, plunking Saroo again and again in front of a map with a distraught expression. The relationship development between he and his girlfriend and he and his adoptive mother is given short shrift, dulling the impact of both threads’ big emotional moments. Despite this, Kidman delivers a monologue rich with love but spiked with real talk in one of the film’s most powerful scenes. But then all these characters fall away as Saroo makes that journey home alone.
Authentically awkward, Saroo stumbles through the dirt paths he remembers, seeking simply for his mother by repeating her name again and again. Then, there’s color, joy, reunion and tears, both those onscreen and those sure-to-be shed in the audience. Though a clunky ride that includes stops that are far from scenic, Lion is an emotional rollercoaster, delivering exhilarating highs and dizzying lows, but with a conclusion that is sure to make hearts sing.