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Lion - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

Imagine if you fell asleep on a train and woke up locked in a train that then took you nearly 1500 kilometers from home -- at the age of 5. That's just a bit more than 900 miles, for those of us in America -- the rough equivalent of the distance between Portland and Los Angeles. Except imagine in this case that everyone at the end of that line didn't even speak the same language as you.

This is what happened in the late eighties to Saroo, played fantastically as a little boy by wide-eyed newcomer Sunny Pawar in the movie Lion. Obsessed with helping his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) travel into the center of the city of Khandwa for work, Guddu takes Saroo from their suburb of Ganesh Talai, which Saroo mispronounces his entire life as "Ganeshtalay." But this is nighttime work, Guddu leaves a sleeping Saroo on a bench at a train station, and when Saroo awakens Guddu is nowhere to be found at the abandoned station. He meanders onto a parked train, falls asleep again, and once he awakens he finds himself stuck on the train for two days. He is unable to get off until the train reaches Calcutta.

Saroo is from north-central India, which makes Hindi his native language. Calcutta, in the Indian state of West Bengal -- which borders Bangladesh -- is filled with people who speak Bengali. Saroo has no idea where he is, how far he's come, or how to talk to anyone.

A lot of time in Lion is spent on the young Saroo making his way around Calcutta as a homeless boy. In one of many heartbreaking scenes, he comes across a group of maybe ten other children, sleeping on broken down cardboard boxes in a train station. Travelers and pedestrians walk past them indifferently. One wonders if this is but a taste of the extent of abject poverty that can be seen in such places. It occurred to me, watching that, that as poorly as the homeless in America can be treated, that is not a scene typically seen in our cities: large groups of unattended homeless children sleeping in the streets.

A seemingly kind young woman finds Saroo walking on the railroad tracks and brings him home. She brings a man home to inspect him, and there is something vaguely unsettling about the way he talks to and touches Saroo. Lion tends to touch only the surface of the many horrors that could (and perhaps did) befall this boy. This extraordinary story is based on actual events. First time feature film director Garth Davis has no qualms with fashioning it into a deeply affecting movie, something that tugs on the heartstrings and straddles the line that crosses over to emotional manipulation.

It does the job effectively. As if Saroo winding up over 900 miles away from home weren't enough, after some time in a local orphanage he ultimately gets adopted by an Australian couple, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. Saroo is flown yet another 5700 miles from Calcutta to Tasmania to meet them. The distance of that initial train ride is thus increased sixfold. Saroo grew up an adopted Tasmanian. His parents adopted another boy from India, who has mental issues. This comparatively privileged family has its own problems but Saroo grows up well taken care of. It's easy to have mixed feelings about Saroo's fate: had he stayed at home, his life would have been far more difficult, genuinely dangerous by comparison.

Saroo grows up to be played by the supremely dashing Dev Patel -- much more grown-up looking since his breakout role in the Best-Picture winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008). The second half of Lion details what makes his story most extraordinary: how the memory of his early childhood spurred him to use the then-new tool of Google Earth to find his birth location and go back in search of his birth family. These aren't exactly spoilers: this is all stuff that actually happened. (That said, Saroo's girlfriend, played by Rooney Mara, is a composite based on several girlfriends.)

Considering the story spans over 25 years, Lion by definition must spend a lot of time suggesting rather than delving deeply into the dimensions of its characters and their struggles. The parts of Saroo's Australian parents feel rather small, and they clearly led lives with plenty of stories that could have made compelling stories with other focuses. This necessitates particularly delicate storytelling for Lion to be effective, and it works incredibly well on all fronts. At 118 minutes, the editing is excellent, as it never feels like anything vital is being left out, even as it hints at what gets left untold. It is beautiful and heartbreaking in equal measure, with further details revealed at the very end about Saroo's real life that are genuinely incredible. This movie is simply not to be missed.


Overall: A-
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