The unexpected presence of jalebis (an Indian street food/sweet treat) at a friend’s party in Australia transports Saroo (Dev Patel) back to India and memories of being a hungry child desiring that delicacy, which was always out of reach but his older brother promised him he would have one day. Saroo was adopted at age five from a Calcutta orphanage by a loving Australian couple living in Tasmania. Lion would have you believe this jalebi moment is the first time he has thought about his birth mother and family (a dramatic interpretation from this true-life tale) since then, but we the viewers have that story and its compelling images and emotions seared into our brains by this point. Thus we willingly go along with adult Saroo’s journey back to those moments on his quest to find his original home and family.
The film wisely plays out the drama in chronological order. We first meet Saroo and his family when he is five, where they live a harsh but happy rural life…one that disappears when Saroo falls asleep on a train that takes him 1600 km from home to Calcutta where he becomes a street urchin running from danger at every corner. Even in light of the clever cinematography (aerial shots early on meld into dream-like memories and scanning of Google Earth for home in his adulthood), the star of the film is without a doubt young Sunny Pawar, who leaves an indelible mark that follows the proud tradition of orphans and lost and wandering children in such classics like Pather Panchali and Salaam Bombay! The episodic nature of the film’s first half is effortlessly compelling and casts a Dickensian spell over the viewer as Saroo encounters increasingly shady characters before finally connecting with those who could help him.
But alas, this is also a tale of adoption, growing hope, and searching for identity. Thus we end up with the adult Saroo in the film’s second half, where Dev Patel proves to be somewhat distracting as he looks nothing like Sunny Pawar and is inherently a stiffly angst-ridden actor with minimal range. Director Garth Davis is wise to constantly remind the viewers through quick flash-backs of the young Saroo, and the centerpiece of the second half is a monologue from Saroo’s adoptive mother (executed emotively by a transfixing Nicole Kidman) where she tells her story of why she always wanted to adopt children in need. It’s a powerful moment that speaks to both the joys and heartbreak of adoption, and the validity of everyone’s feelings in the situation.
Eventually, through the help of Google Earth (I swear this film is a times like one big inspirational advertisement for the app), Saroo locates his hometown (which, along with his own name, he had been misspeaking all this time), and the film ends on an uplifting high note that’s not without its own heartbreak as well.
Lion is a well executed first effort from Davis, and thanks to the inherently moving true-life drama and the irresistible pull of Pawar’s and Kidman’s performances, it’s a story you won’t forget, much like those tasty but ungraspable jalebis.
Written by David H. Schleicher