Based on the astonishing real-life story of a boy in search of his family, Lion stars Dev Patel and Sunny Pawar as Saroo Brierley in this recently Best Picture-nominated biopic. Lee reviews.
Light musing: isn’t putting “based on a true story” at the start of your film something of an indication of trepidation over the audience’s ability to engage with the story you’re about to present? Wouldn’t the reveal at the end be more interesting when the story turns out to be real and you debated the point of it after all this time?
There’s certainly nothing to be afraid of in the big beats: Lion is one-half lone child survival story, one-half ponderous adult crisis of identity tale, and it’s a fascinating blend at that. The sheer horror of the first half, where a young Indian boy called Saroo finds himself in a distant city, unable to communicate, dodging child abductors and starvation at every turn; somehow, this narrative makes a perfect complement to the story of an adult adoptee and his dissolve into guilt and obsession at the risk of losing everyone he loves.
Saroo’s mythic pain and the damage it does to those around him isn’t relatable, or rational, but it is human, and it’s easy to see where it comes from. When he travels again to study in early adulthood, the profound new experiences and resurgence of never-too-distant loneliness best him, and here the narrative reinforces its decision to spend so much time with young Saroo and the difficulty with his early life, so that you know exactly where this pain comes from. It’s well executed, leading you to hope for a resolve even as you gradually grow detached and fear the consequences of Saroo’s decisions.
That same innate, human sympathy does lend to criticism however in the pacing and telling of this story. Once you’ve spent a solid hour following the trials and tribulations of a young boy trying to find home, perhaps cutting to a black screen with the text “20 Years Later” wasn’t the most understanding of the audience’s investment at this point, especially just after a very recent jump in a year.
As an audience, we’re not simply invested in Saroo’s eventual story, we’re invested in this character wholesale; at this point in the film, we’re still more preoccupied hoping he finds somewhere comfortable to live, especially after a few red herrings, than we’ll ever be hoping he’ll make it back to “Ganestalay”, so to jump forward so haphazardly without even a montage or acknowledgement of his surely difficult teenage years entails the filmmakers essentially abandoning most of the investment they had earned at this point for a head-scratching leap towards the story they feel they ought to tell.
This dissonance creates distance between the audience, the film and its intentions, none of which is helped by a slapdash race-for-the-finish pace that introduces side character after underdeveloped side character, all to be soon discarded. Saroo’s girlfriend Lucy, the student friends he bonds with, his adoptive parents and his adoptive brother Mantosh are all featured long enough to explain their position in Saroo’s life but not long enough to explore the damage he does in his ultimate quest or the reason they all put up with him as he does so. It leaves the film feeling incomplete and much of the latter half feeling inconsequential next to the film’s terrific resolve.
A resolve that packs one lingering emotional punch and, after the hardship and struggle, really sells the good intentions that put this movie in motion. It’s a tremendous real story, brought to shimmering life with light touches that do warrant a cinematic adaptation, and the character exploration with Saroo is well-enough handled that much of the criticism levied at the film can only be centred around how there wasn’t more of him. It might cheat you at times, and you could argue for a better interpretation of the events, but Lion still makes for an overall worthwhile experience for the sheer humanity that inspired it.