To unfurl my best impression of a sports commentator, Lion is, broadly speaking, a film of two halves. But unlike the insinuation invoked by said metaphor, these are two halves of consistent quality. There is no playing badly and then coming on to a game, or any downward spiral in fortune as the final minutes approach: It’s good and bad, and then it’s good and bad. Rather, the deviating halves come via a drastic change of scenery, of personnel and, in some ways, of mood. The first introduces us to young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), their days spent scavenging adroitly in an effort to return home with milk and, presumably, other rations. They live in small, poor Indian village with their mother and sister, the former feeding her family by carrying rocks.
This might paint a picture of struggle, and there is struggle, but for around 20 minutes the screen is awash with sibling camaraderie, Saroo’s adorable willingness to put a shift in for the cause only matched in merit by Guddu’s unassailable duty of care. Plucked from obscurity — in Pawar’s case, an audition at school — the pair of young actors beam with authenticity in both their relationship on-screen and their presence in a sustenance-centric world. Like Room’s Jacob Tremblay, Sunny Pawar defies his inexperience and excels, possibly because said inexperience hasn’t yet afforded him the capacity to knowingly perform, and thus perform poorly. Instead we see the real kid, a bundle of energy and charisma, arms pumping like Usain Bolt on an Olympic track whenever he sprints to the next scavenging destination.
This sweetness sours when Guddu fails to return from a work shift, leaving Saroo stranded on a train bound for some faraway metropolis. Garth Davis’ film loses a bit of momentum as Saroo stumbles from locale to locale — the narrative gets stuck on a repetitive loop, compounding Saroo’s lost predicament beyond necessity. There is refuge in a tunnel with other lost children, a sleepover with a seemingly conscientious woman, and more, each encounter conveying the same message of volatility. You actually get enough of a sense of just how much trouble Saroo is in via Greig Fraser’s cinematography, which captures the vastness of an unknown landscape: car lights, train lights, street lights enmeshed in tightly packed, busy urban spheres and swamped externally by a sea of barren nature.
The film refocuses upon reaching Australia, Saroo’s new home, the youngster having been adopted by locals Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). We only spend a moment more in little Pawar’s company before Dev Patel takes over, playing an older Saroo on the cusp of hotel management study. This is also the point at which we meet Lucy (Rooney Mara), a fellow student and Saroo’s impending girlfriend. The actors have a chemistry that helps them work around their rapid-fire romance, and Mara in particular does well with insufficient screen time. She projects tender authority, determined to support Saroo but not defined by his quest to locate his family via Google Earth.
The Australia half, though for the most part engaging, stumbles with well-meaning intent. It tries to pitch itself as a multicultural reprieve, but somewhat loses sight of that in its postcolonial attempt to redress the prevailing Hollywood imbalance. Rather than spending time with birth mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), Luke Davies’ screenplay privileges Sue’s emotional journey. She has a hard time dealing with Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), whom she and John adopted shortly after Saroo and who has failed to adapt to life following a turbulent childhood. Her appearances are bitty, not all-encompassing, but the notion that the Australian mother should command most of our sympathy doesn’t sit right with the film’s otherwise progressive platform. Indeed, the issue is captured in a scene where an emotionally wrought Sue laments the state of her family, speaking about a vision she had in her younger years that convinced her to adopt.
After its opening act the piece affords Kamla little screen time, and us little time to develop sufficient compassion for her following Saroo’s disappearance. This also speaks to a larger issue about the level of attention minority actors are afforded in Western cinema, and the consequences a lack of satisfactory attention can incur: Kidman has been nominated for an Oscar, whereas the likely equally talented Bose has not. I should note though that, to both Davis and Davies’ credit, life in Australia is far from glorified. Family tensions are at the fore, tensions in part generated by Saroo’s unwillingness to confide in Sue and John about his mission to find his birth mother. Patel particularly excels during these sequences of inner turmoil and we feel the weight of his character’s struggle.
Matching the fervour of a late winning goal (this sports metaphor should never have made it past the opening line; I can only apologise) Lion evokes a plume of bittersweet emotion as it reaches its conclusion. The moment makes the journey worthwhile, even if we, like Saroo, have had to navigate rugged terrain in order to get there.
Director: Garth Davis
Runtime: 1h 58mins
Starring: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman
Images ©: The Weinstein Company