Lion (2016) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic material and some sensuality.
Running Time: 118 min.

Cast: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Priyanka Bose, David Wenham, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa
Director: Garth Davis
Screenplay: Luke Davies (based on the book, "A Long Way Home", by Saroo Brierley

Review published January 4, 2017

Based on a true story, captured within a "60 Minutes" television special, and later, during its pre-production phase by Saroo Brierley's memoir, "A Long Way Home", young and poor Indian boy Saroo Brierley was separated from his mother and brother at the age of five after getting lost at a railway station, falling asleep on a decommissioned train, then waking up over 1500 kilometers away in Calcutta, far, far away from his tiny remote village he called home.  He doesn't understand most of the Bengali dialect spoken there, he can't really communicate to anyone who he is and where he is from, and as a result, he's essentially homeless, hungry, and a complete stranger to his new environment. 

Escaping from those who would love to prey on a lost and lonely boy like Saroo, he ends up in a fairly bleak orphanage before he's finally adopted by a kindly Australian couple living in Hobart, Tasmania, where Saroo thrives until his adulthood, always wondering how he might be able to get back in contact with the family he knows must still be searching for him.  Using new internet technology developed over two decades later, adult Saroo might just have a breakthrough after all.

Nonprofessional actor Sunny Pawar does a nice job shouldering the load of the first half of the film as young and desperate Saroo, who is mostly on his own once he leaves home, save for the occasional stranger who offers to either help or hurt him along the journey.  First time feature film director Garth Davis, who cut his teeth in TV and commercials, does a very compelling job bringing these difficult scenes, shot on location, and in languages he doesn't know, together, coupled with some amazing cinematography from Davis' longtime collaborator Greig Fraser (The Gambler, Foxcatcher), who truly delivers some breathtaking vistas, and does a great job in exploring the wide contrasts in color and texture of each specific locale. Gorgeous sound design also immerses us in each respective part of the world.

Lion is a tale of halves and halves again.  The first half of the film involving Saroo's home life, his ending up virtually cast away, and his strange odyssey as a stranger in a strange land are compelling and interesting, even though it may make some viewers, many of whom will already know where Saroo's story is headed, anxious for the parts with adult Saroo, Dev Patel, and company, and whether he reunites with his long-lost mother and brother once more.  Screenwriter Luke Davies reportedly found influence in the story structure of Wall-E in terms of capturing a completely different world to explore for a half film before getting to the meat of the matter, which is commendable, and does work well in terms of sowing the seeds of a compelling story of a little boy lost many miles away from anything and anyone he knows.

Unfortunately, the second half is not quite as strong, despite capable and recognizable stars, exploring a bit too much of Saroo's personal life as a student of hotel management in Melbourne, side characters (Rooney Mara's Lucy character is not based on a specific person, but a conglomeration of classmates and relationships Saroo may have had during this period), prolonged looks of deep anguish on the part of Patel, as well as completely redundant use of flashbacks to persistently remind us of all that we've seen not even a half hour before.  Also, while it is interesting that Saroo finds renewed vigor in searching for home once he is introduced to Google Earth (where it's difficult for Saroo to imagine his world from top down when he had always been looking at it as a tiny boy from the ground up), it's not entirely satisfying from a cinematic story standpoint to continuously see him hunched over a computer trying to triangulate where he thinks his home town might reside, resulting in prolonged lulls through increase narrative repetition.

Nevertheless, the film finds its footing once again as it begins its descent toward the ending, where we finally start to get some answers as to whether Saroo has indeed found his home town, and whether his mother, brother and sister might still be alive.  It is then that the emotional sweep of the story finally goes into full crescendo, and even those who might have begun to check out of the film will be stirred back to their invested interest with some powerful final moments that will leave few faces dry walking out of the theater.  Bring a tissue...or a box of them.

 Qwipster's rating:

2017 Vince Leo