Lion could have been a sophisticated exploration of identity and alienation but settles for being a disappointingly simple fairy tale.
Within the first fifteen minutes of Lion, 10-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) finds himself separated from his older brother and on an out-of-service train. When it finally stops, he’s in Calcutta, more than 1000 km away from home. Here, his mother tongue, Hindi, is useless. It’s the beginning of a remarkable story about a boy who loses one family and gains another on a different continent. This could have been a rich opportunity to deal with the complex issues of immigration, displacement, alienation, and adoption through Saroo’s conflicted feelings about his identity over the years. Instead, the film takes the easy way out and focuses on the mechanics of how the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) uses Google Earth to locate his hometown and his biological mother. Everything in Lion is tailored to highlight human compassion and connection, often at the expense of realism.Everything in Lion is tailored to highlight human compassion and connection, often at the expense of realism.Click To Tweet
Although young Saroo managed to avoid the dangers lurking in the Dickensian streets of Calcutta, his story is still a traumatic one. Yet Lion chooses to tell an inspirational fairy tale instead of an emotionally complicated story. Separated from house and home, Saroo had to fend for himself. But we’re meant to wonder at his brushes with human kindness more than the loneliness and fear he must be feeling. When his salvation came, it meant being shipped off to a foreign country and continent, to live with strangers who spoke a different language. Saroo’s Australian adoptive parents, Sue (Nicole Kidman, looking impressively frumpy) and John (David Wenham), are kind and patient. But instead of addressing the trauma of the adoption experience, we shift perspective to his adoptive parents, telling him in English how glad they are to have him.
Director Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) focuses on lyrical moments of non-verbal communication that can happen between strangers. This elevates an otherwise straightforward fairytale to something more poetic. Time and time again, Davis makes the point that we don’t need words or language to communicate — even though it’s Saroo’s lack of words that keeps him separated from his biological family for so many years. As a child, Saroo gets a helping hand from a young man in the city whom he spots in a cafe, sipping soup. Saroo copies him in a mime with an invisible spoon, slurping and scooping in unison, making the man smile until he comes to see why this gregarious child is on the street. Later, the twenty-something Saroo (Dev Patel) will strike up a flirtation with a woman in his class (Rooney Mara), as they dance a call and response from opposite sides of the street.
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Davis’ fixation on physical communication serves two purposes. First, it emphasizes the fable-like nature of the story, wondering at the ways humans can connect in unlikely circumstances. In other words, it’s designed to jerk as many tears out of you as possible. The moments of physical connection between characters are the source of the film’s charm, even though they’re blatantly emotionally manipulative. The second purpose, to reassure us that the adult Saroo will not be hindered in communicating with his biological family despite the loss of his mother tongue, is somewhat problematic.
Just because Saroo is able to find a non-verbal language to communicate with his biological family doesn’t mean he isn’t likely to mourn the loss of his original culture. At a dinner party with friends from an international course, the adult Saroo tells them, “I’m not really Indian. I’m adopted.” His statement rings false. He once had a life in India, even if it feels like a distant memory. When he spots an Indian delicacy at the party, which he and his biological brother used to dream of purchasing as children, he freezes. The memories start flooding back, and he realizes he has to track down his biological family.
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Once Saroo embarks on the search, the film becomes obsessed with the sheer time and energy he has to invest in it. We watch his sleepless nights, ignoring everyone around him, as he sorts through hundreds of train stations, hoping to find an image that evokes a vague memory. We see the strain that this puts on his personal relationships, especially his fear of telling his adoptive parents about his search for fear they’ll think him ungrateful. But the film is much more concerned with the miracle of technology to bring people together than the soul searching that Saroo must have been going through. We only ever see him sitting in front of a laptop, playing with Google Earth. It’s not an invitation for flashbacks or an excavation of cultural allegiances. The remaining momentum evaporates in the film’s final third, as the dialogue is reduced to platitudes.
The film’s saving grace is its performances, which elevate the often lazy script by Luke Davies. Patel, who has grown from a gawky teenager into a handsome heartbreaker, highlights Saroo’s conflicting emotions, which are only gestured at in the script without really being explored. Despite delivering cliched monologues about a mother’s selfless love for her children, Kidman has a kind, winning presence. Even in the thankless role of supportive girlfriend, Mara crafts a woman who challenges Saroo, though the script gives her scant motivations of her own. But the strong cast is also a reminder that these actors could have tackled much more difficult terrain, with grace and intelligence, had Davies and Davis given them the opportunity.