You’d better bring some Kleenex cause this film takes a lot out of you. Based on The Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, Lion tells the true-life story of Brierley’s decades long search for his birth family after losing them as a child. For his directorial debut, Luke Davis takes us through the man’s real life journey from the streets of India to a suburban home in Australia and back. He earns every tear shed.
As a little boy, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) would help his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) sell stolen coal so they can help their mother (Priyanka Bose) provide for the family. With this being set in India, we are treated to some beautiful imagery, especially in the opening scene of Saroo surrounded by butterflies in the desert. Just as beautiful is loving relationship between Saroo and Guddu. They seem inseparable. But then one night at a train station, Guddu leaves Saroo behind while he searches for work. That night, he doesn’t come back, and Saroo finds himself trapped on a train, headed to Calcutta. Now, he’s far away from home in a city whose language he doesn’t understand. You find yourself holding back your tears when Saroo calls for his brother.
With no clue where his home is, he joins many children sleeping in cardboards, forced to scavenge for food. Just when he thinks he’ll be helped, he realizes that person has perverted plans for him, as we see in one uncomfortable scene.
I admire the film for spending half of its screen time focusing on Saroo’s childhood. Other screenwriters would have focused mostly on Saroo’s search. Instead, screenwriter Luke Davies takes the time to show us the ordeals Saroo went through during that time. It not only does this make it more rewarding when he finds his parents, but it also showcases the horrible conditions homeless children endure in countries like India.
Fortunately, his luck turns around when he’s adopted by Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley, a loving couple from Tasmania. Though shy at first, he comes to bond with these two. He also gets another adopted brother in Mantosh, whose way more standoffish and inflicts self-harm. John and Sue’s struggles raising Mantosh would itself make a compelling movie. It would be great to understand why he distances himself from his adopted family. The problem is that it kind of interferes with the main plot.
Decades later, Saroo (Dev Patel) is attending college to become a hotel manager, having forgotten about his childhood. But a plate of Jalebis triggers his need to find his biological family. With the invention of Google Earth, he finds a chance to find the train station where he lost Guddu. But this turns into an obsession, drawing concerns from his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) and his parents.
You can’t help but feel torn over Saroo’s obsession. On one hand, you long to see him reunite with his family. When he imagines Guddu screaming his name at the station, you understand Saroo’s need to find him. But when it starts to take over his life, you grow concerned for him. When Saroo starts imagining Guddu everywhere he goes, you begin to wonder if it’s even worth it. Lucy also makes the good point of asking “What if you find your home and they’re not there?” But you still want him to find them.
Lion represents the very emotional journey audiences go to the movies for. Without resorting to emotional manipulation, Davis packs an emotional wallop. You will be feeling tears of both tragedy and joy, especially when you find out the meaning of the film’s title.