Lion: Worlds Apart, by Scott Nye
Not every great story is a great narrative. The true story of Saroo Brierley – who at five years old was trapped on a train and drive thousands of miles from his rural home, adopted by an Australian couple, and found his family decades later using Google Earth – is an amazing story. It speaks to notions of biological and constructed families, how far the communication gap has been bridged in the very recent past, how much of one’s identity is formed at various life stages, and how much of life is determined by total chance. It’s a great story. But that doesn’t make it terribly interesting to watch someone use Google Earth for a large chunk of a two-hour film.
In adaption Brierley’s memoir, screenwriter Luke Davies wisely spends about half the film solely on his childhood. Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a resourceful kid who wants nothing more than to spend time with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), whether it be work or play. When he talks Guddu into taking him along for a late-night trip to a workyard, he quickly grows tired and, upon arrival, falls asleep on a bench at a train station. When he wakes up, Guddu is nowhere to be found. Saroo boards a train, falls asleep again, and wakes up with an out-of-service train in motion he-doesn’t-even-know-where. He calls out; no answer. He calls to people at train stops; they don’t budge. When he arrives in the city of Kolkata, he doesn’t speak the local language and has no idea how to return home. We see him dodge kidnappers, find odd jobs, make temporary friendships, suffer on the street with dozens of other homeless children, and experience through his plight the daily hardships people go through when they live in poverty. Besides the struggle just to survive, any trust he gives could doom him to an even worse fate.
So when he’s taken in my an orphanage and offered a home with John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley in Australia, he’s understandably hesitant, but the orphanage makes clear his options have run out. So off he goes. And things, to his surprise and delight, go extremely well. He grows up a happy, loved, and comfortable young man (now played by Dev Patel), ready to set off to hospitality school. But a sudden reminder of his childhood reminds him of all he lost those many years ago. He slowly drops out of life, letting his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) deteriorate, letting his job fall away, until all he has is a big map with a lot of pins in it and a constantly-refreshing laptop.
I suspect the text of those two paragraphs suggests the rough degree of interest each section elicits. It’s hard to follow up life on the run, filled with heartache and new experiences, with a guy who won’t leave his apartment and spurns his girlfriend and family. Not that his depression is beyond reason or understanding, but first-time feature director Garth Davis never quite finds the space to develop Saroo in his doubt and uncertainty. He rushes past the uncomfortable rejections towards miniature speeches Saroo or Sue can make about the nature of their little family, which are touching if a little trite. But they point to how much goes unsaid as one ages, how important conversations like “why they adopted Saroo” never quite took place for one reason or another. Saroo’s too good a guy to feel bitter about this, and his few negative traits are little-dwelled-upon. The conflict he has with his girlfriend or is adopted brother is great fodder for drama, but it’s so tangential to the film’s rudimentary concerns. While Mara plays this drama well, Patel – so comfortable with cheer and good will – tries to shrug it off.
What’s more, those concerns – will Saroo find his family? – are given none of the urgency and suspense such an important search might suggest. Yes, obviously, he finds them, otherwise the film wouldn’t exist. But how many historical films have we seen where the outcome was a given but the journey was still a nail-biter? So much of Lion is just running out the clock. We need to get him on the plane and we need him to walk through the village and find the house and turn the corner and meet the guy and on and on and on so we can get to joyful reunion, but each step is taken for granted. Each development is unadorned and plain. This, you could get from a plot summary.