Each year in India, we are told at the very end of Garth Davis’ much-lauded 2016 movie Lion, some 80,000 children go missing. The film traces the improbable odyssey of just one of them: Saroo Brierley, author of the 2013 autobiography A Long Way Home. The story that it tells could be described with arguable accuracy as either unoriginal or classic. But in terms of cinematic execution, there’s no denying that Lion is stunning. If you’re the sort who ever cries at movies, bring a pocketful of tissues: You will need them.
Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is only five years old when he becomes separated from his elder brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) in a train station where the two had gone at night to scavenge fallen coins, food scraps and tradable debris to help support their impoverished family, who live on the outskirts of the town of Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh. Falling asleep on a decommissioned train while waiting for Guddu to come back for him, Saroo wakes to find himself locked into the car for days while it carries him more than 900 miles to a railway station in Kolkata. Everyone there speaks Bengali, Saroo only Hindi. He doesn’t even know his surname, and mangles the name of his home village when he seeks to return.
Through a combination of coincidence, fleet-footedness, good inner radar and general resourcefulness, the lad escapes some of the ever-present dangers of the teeming metropolis, where street kids are lucky to have a piece of cardboard to sleep on while they dodge gangs of child sex traffickers. Eventually he ends up in an orphanage, which one of his fellow inmates truthfully tells him is “a bad place.” After the authorities’ halfhearted search for his birth family fails, Saroo is packed off to Tasmania to live with a kind and supportive Aussie family (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and feisty little Saroo is now a charming young man (Dev Patel) who has bonded well with his adoptive parents. He is protective of his younger brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), another Indian lost boy who has not adapted quite so well to his new life. Socializing with other Indian expats while attending hotel management school in Melbourne, Saroo finds his early childhood memories reawakened and begins to obsess over the pain that his birth family must experience daily since his disappearance. He also discovers the wonders of Google Earth, and begins to use the new technology to try to retrace his steps.
We know going in how this saga ends, since the book got written and the movie got made. There are few big surprises to spoil. Moreover, there’s just so much that a director can do with scenes of a tormented man pecking away at a laptop and covering his bedroom walls with maps full of pushpins. And yet Lion grabs hold of us, wrings us emotionally and won’t let go until the very end.
Most of the credit must go to the actors. Patel is a marvel, utterly convincing in both the intensity of his personal quest and the sincerity of his empathy for others. His scenes with Kidman are terrific, conveying gratitude and trust, turmoil and estrangement all at once. It’s made abundantly clear that this is a young man with two real mothers. Rooney Mara does a fine, witty job with a skimpy role as Saroo’s college girlfriend, who wants to help but ultimately has to let him find his own way.
But most impressive of all is the Mumbai native Sunny Pawar, who reportedly never even saw a Western movie before this one, and yet blazes across the first third of the film like a comet. He’s a natural actor if there ever was one. If there is any justice in the world, Lion should propel him into a long and distinguished screen career.
Also deserving special mention is cinematographer Greig Fraser. Every scene is beautifully framed and lit, and he uses overhead photography abundantly in a way that makes the spirit soar as it transports the viewer seamlessly from Google Earth Street View to the real world and back again. The India that we visit here is not the spice-colored human carnival of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies, but a grittier, gloomier place where scratching out a meager living while tossed in a restless sea of anonymity is most people’s daily fare. Coastal Tasmania, by powerful contrast, is presented as so spectacular and restful to the eye that you’ll want to move there immediately. But you’ll also understand why Saroo Brierley feels compelled to knit these two disparate halves of his existence back together.
You still have a couple of weeks to catch Lion before Oscar night. Find out for yourself why it’s on so many awards lists this year. And don’t forget the Kleenex.