This is the best version of this movie. That doesn’t mean this is the best movie. Just that given what they started with, there were a lot of places this could have gone wrong. This digital quest to find home, while compelling on paper, is not the easiest story to transfer to the screen. But they did it. They managed to take 30% percent third-world drama, 30% familial drama, 30% romantic drama, with 10% Google Maps advertisement and form it into a story that feels complete and heartfelt. There were plenty of opportunities for too much of this or too much of that, but Garth Davis’ Lion resists all of that and comes together as one of the year’s best efforts.
The story begins with Saroo as a young boy growing up in India with his mother, brother and sister. He and his older brother go out for daily adventures in mischief even though Saroo’s small stature makes that a challenge. One night, after stealing coal from a train, Saroo falls asleep at the station. When he wakes up, the station is empty and his brother is nowhere to be found. He looks for his brother on a train that eventually leaves the station and is forced to ride it for thousands of miles. Once it finally stops, he attempts to find his way back home, but is unsuccessful. After a short stint living on the streets, he winds up at an orphanage from which he is adopted by an Australian family.
Fast-forward about 20 years and Saroo is living as an adult in Australia. He has an adopted brother and is pursuing his education. Prompted by lingering questions, he enlists the aid of Google Earth to try to find his family. The movie’s final Act follows him as he tries to make sense of his conflicting identities and his longing for home.
Family dramas always have the potential to get out of hand with the melodrama. They often linger on manufactured angst borne out of problems that just aren’t that serious. Lion is different in that every element of Saroo’s struggle feels real and relatable. His bond with his adoptive mother (played beautifully by Nicole Kidman) was touching in a way that felt genuine—which serves well as the movie’s emotional core. Her chemistry with her on-screen son (played at that point by Dev Patel) is really the film’s strongest element.
But since this is Hollywood, it is to be expected that they would figure out how to foul it up. The film’s major weakness comes from the romantic relationship between Saroo and Lucy (played by Rooney Mara). Every time the film feels like it is soaring, we are brought down to the trivial—this relationship that felt so much more temporary when juxtaposed with the deeper connections to his birth-mother and adoptive-mother. I have no idea how instrumental Lucy was in the real events that inspired the movie, but on an entertainment level, her inclusion was not compelling. That the film gives these relationships equal weight is a shame, but it is more like a clipped wing as opposed to a flightless bird—the film still flies.
Overall, this retelling of a story about complex identity does a lot well. It will be hard not to feel the emotions when it wants you to and the story moves briskly enough that even the less essential bits don’t feel like much of a burden.
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