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Review: Lion (2016)

Lion (2016)

Directed by: Garth Davis

Premise: Based on the true story of Saroo Brierley. A five-year-old Indian boy inadvertently gets trapped on a train and is shipped across the country. He is eventually taken in by an orphanage and adopted by an Australian couple. Decades later, Saroo attempts to find his Indian family.

What Works: Lion can be divided into two halves. The first portion is about the five-year-old Saroo, played by Sunny Pawar, as he is separated from his family and survives on the streets of Calcutta. The second half involves the adult Saroo struggling with the memories of his childhood and looking for his biological family. Of these two parts, the first half of Lion is the strongest. The opening scenario of Lion tap into the audience’s primal and parental instincts and the scenes of this child lost amid a city of poverty and danger has an immediate and visceral effect on the viewer. Admirably, the filmmakers don’t overplay their hand. Director Garth Davis recognizes the power inherent in the imagery and lets it speak for itself. This first half of Lion has a terrific performance by young actor Sunny Pawar. The boy is extremely watchable and has an intelligence and charisma that are unusual for a young actor. The second half of Lion isn’t as compelling as the first simply because the circumstances are less dramatic but it is still quite good. In this half, Saroo is played by Dev Patel. Where the first half of Lion is about survival, the second half is about reckoning with what it means to survive and furthermore what it means to have a multi-national identity. The adult Saroo is riddled with guilt about the opportunities and comforts that he enjoys living in an upper-middle class family in the western world. Patel plays that tension well with Saroo’s inner turmoil bubbling beneath the surface of his performance. The filmmakers include some effective cinematic techniques to convey Saroo’s split identity. Certain sensory stimuli, such as Saroo’s encounters with Indian food, awaken his childhood memories and the filmmakers smartly cut in flashbacks in a way that suggests the complexity of his identity. Lion is also well shot, especially in the first half. The sequences taking place in India have a sense of the texture of life and the filmmakers smartly position the camera from the vantage point of a child so that the action unfolds from Saroo’s point of view. 

What Doesn’t: There is a lot going on in Lion in terms of its plot and its themes but many of these elements aren’t followed to a conclusion. Saroo has a complicated relationship with his American girlfriend, played by Rooney Mara, and his fellow adoptee Mantosh, played by Divian Ladwa. Saroo’s romantic relationship is stressed by his obsession with finding his biological family and he takes out some of his first world guilt on his girlfriend in a way that the movie never really acknowledges. Saroo’s relationship with Mantosh is more complex. Saroo is a success while his brother isn’t. Some of that is a matter of life choices but it’s also due to Mantosh’s mental illness. Their relationship is further complicated by the way Mantosh reminds Saroo of their childhood trauma. The film treats these subplots superficially and does not acknowledge how Saroo’s relationships might change if he finds his Indian family. For that matter, Lion suggests several questions that it never answers: if Saroo can find his family, then what? What does this mean for him, for his identity, and his relationships? And what does that reunion mean for his families, biological and adoptive? Lion is constructed in such a way that it never gets to these issues because the narrative reaches its logical conclusion well before that point. Ultimately, this story might have been better told as a documentary than as a feature film.

Bottom Line: Lion mostly succeeds as a character study. The story excludes some of the more interesting implications of Saroo Brierley’s story but the film is a well-made and compelling drama with excellent performances by Dev Patel and Sunny Pawar.

Episode: #631 (January 22, 2017)