Directed by Garth Davis. Starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar, David Wenham, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Khushi Solanki, Deepti Naval, Menik Gooneratne, Divian Ladwa. (2016, PG-13, 118 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 23, 2016
Based on actual (relatively recent) events, Lion tells the story of 5-year-old Saroo (instantly likable newcomer Sunny Pawar), a boy from an impoverished part of India who, through a simple mistake, boards the wrong train and ends up a thousand miles from home, in the teeming, wild streets of Calcutta. After a series of events, he lands in a dodgy orphanage – is there any other kind? – from which he is ultimately adopted by an Australian couple (Kidman and Wenham) and grows up into Dev Patel, a young man haunted by the fact that, even 25 years later, he still doesn’t have a clue where his real home was. Enter the newly released Google Earth. Surreptitious at first, Saroo embarks on a years-long campaign to discover the exact coordinates of the tiny village where his mother, brother, and sister presumably still live. Like so many other cinematic foundlings, he is bedeviled by the knowledge that his original family has surely been wondering whatever became of little Saroo, just as he persists in remembering them in dreams and sudden flashes of memory.
There’s never a doubt regarding how Saroo’s familial melodrama will play out, and so while Lion has a magical, thrilling first act set amidst the chaotic hurly-burly of Kolkata (the 5-year-old is, after all, on a genuine if unwanted and occasionally scary adventure) and a “bring your handkerchiefs” final act, the lengthy midsection stops the story in its tracks. Kidman does her best to evoke a sort of all-encompassing maternal love that’s spiderwebbed by her adoption of Saroo’s “brother” Mantosh (Ladwa), who is plagued by mental illness and self-harm. But still, it’s little Saroo’s fanciful yet perilous journey through the labyrinthine, colorful avenues and alleyways of Calcutta that really roars. A melodrama with a terrific, jarring score by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, older Saroo’s fixation on finding his biological mother and siblings is rooted in the actual, adult world, meaning more logical reality – he’s driving his girlfriend (Mara) to distraction with his marathon Googling – and less magical realism via little Saroo’s kid’s-eye view of the world. It’s a tonally imperfect film that’s nonetheless ideal for holiday viewing, a respite from Rogue One perhaps, or simply an exciting, old-school explorer’s tale well told (for the most part).