Approximately the first half of Lion offers a scenario as terrifying as anything in any recent horror movie short of actual death. A five year-old Indian boy named Saroo (Sonny Pawar) falls asleep on a train station bench at night, waiting for his older brother who has assured him, in truest Scream fashion (even though this is ostensibly a true-life drama), that he’ll be right back. The first time Saroo wakes up, he is still alone, and cannot find his brother anywhere. The second time, he’s in an empty carriage on a train going who-kn0ws-where, with bars on the windows and locks on the doors. Each time the train stops, he cries out for help, but the only people who see him outside just stare back, uncomprehending. Intercom announcements suggest that train he’s on is decommissioned, and will not be boarding anyone else. When it finally stops, he’s in Calcutta, thousands of miles from a home whose name he only half remembers and mispronounces.
While there appears to be no sinister conspiracy to have gotten him on the train (in the real story Lion is based on, he wandered aboard, but this did not seem clear in the movie itself) the reality of the situation is no less dangerous. He is a child alone in a dangerous, overcrowded city, where everyone who seems like they might be helpful has an ulterior motive.
It’s a modern-day Dickensian tale, and one that’s easy to invest in. Who among us does not remember the feeling of being a lost child, or felt their stomach sink when thinking about every danger that can befall one unsupervised? Unfortunately, this is not the entire movie: Saroo ends up in an orphanage, Australian parents adopt him, and all of a sudden Nicole Kidman and David Wenham are mugging at us and reminding us that despite what we thought was gritty realism, this is in fact just a movie. Time speeds up, Saroo becomes Dev Patel with Kylo Ren hair, and before long Rooney Mara is his girlfriend. It’s a drastic contrast, and sets up what director Garth Davis thinks this story is really about: Saroo trying to track down his birthplace using Google Earth.
We’re meant to feel the anguish of Saroo being of two worlds but feeling like he belongs in neither, and yet we can’t—the movie glosses over his entire formative years in Australia, so we meet him fully formed as an Aussie adult without any real idea what that means inside. We know his entire past, yet he’s half-forgotten it, until a taste of Indian street food triggers his recall. When he lashes out at the privilege he’s surrounded by, yeah, we get it, because we’ve been through the slums of Calcutta with him. But there’s no real sense of what took their place in his life in the meantime. It is hinted at that the adoptive family doesn’t communicate well, as Saroo has an adoptive brother with developmental disabilities, and at one point learns something about his parents that you really think would have come up far sooner in his life. But the deck is stacked: he’s willing to throw everything in his new life away to obsessively track down his past. Unfortunately, so is the movie.
As the product of different cultures and countries myself, I ought to be able to relate to this sort of thing. But it misses the mark on the duality—Saroo goes from forgetting his past completely to suddenly being all about it, and it’s a lot more complicated than that, especially if (as here) both sides of the equation love and miss you. The inevitable finale draws emotions for what it is rather than what it earns, and an end credit about how you can help missing children suggests—as if it were not abundantly clear narratively—that the story of the lost child was the heart of the story, rather than the journey back of the emotionally lost adult who nonetheless has two loving adoptive parents and a girlfriend with endless patience and movie-star looks, poor thing. If Google Earth paid to get a certain amount of screen time, okay. If they didn’t, the story, based on the real-life Saroo Brierley’s autobiography, badly needed restructuring for the screen.
If the entire movie were set in India, I could see it being a 5-burrito movie. In the end, I can only give it 3.
Images: The Weinstein Company
Luke Y. Thompson writes words. Some of them are on Twitter.