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‘Lion’ is haunting and heartwarming

| Monday, January 30, 2017

Lion for WEBLAUREN HEBIG | The Observer

Rarely are fairy tale endings Oscar-worthy — or, for that matter, rarely are they honest and deeply moving. Garth Davis’s film “Lion,” based on the book and true story “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley, defies this stereotype with a story that spans decades and continents. “Lion” is simultaneously haunting and heartwarming, and will undoubtedly leave you in sniffling tears.

Essentially a story in two parts, “Lion” begins in rural and impoverished India. Young Saroo, played by five-year-old Sunny Pawar, and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) struggle to help their mother scrounge necessities to keep their family alive. When Saroo tries to accompany Guddu on a dangerous late-night job, he proves too small and too sleepy; Guddu leaves him on a bench at the train station to rest, and promises to return soon with a plan. Saroo awakens hours later and sets off to find Guddu, but mistakenly boards a train that takes him on a frightening, multi-day journey to Calcutta, 1600 miles from his small hometown.

The harsh, crowded and unforgiving atmosphere of Calcutta seems as unfamiliar and disheartening to young Saroo as it is to Western audiences. Young Saroo’s pleas for help are ignored — and misunderstood, as he is unable to speak their language — and he lives on the streets among countless other young children for months.

With simplicity and honest storytelling, in the first hour of the film Davis gives audiences an honest window into a culture gut-wrenchingly foreign to our own. Saroo escapes abduction, lechery and violence while fending for himself on the streets — horrors which some 80,000 displaced Indian children face every year.

Ultimately, the loving Tasmanian couple John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) adopt Saroo. The new family grows together quickly and seamlessly. Soon, the Brierleys adopt another Indian boy, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav), with a more troubled past.

The latter half of the movie shifts in both tone and setting, portraying grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) as well-adjusted. In contrast, adult Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) suffers from mental illnesses, substance-abuse issues and his feelings of displacement, 20 years after his adoption. Now studying hotel management in Melbourne, Saroo begins to remember pieces of his childhood. He becomes consumed with finding the family he once had, despite his inability to remember his mother’s name or the name of his rural hometown. He withdraws from his loving family and network of friends — including his girlfriend Lucy, played by Rooney Mara — in favor of tracking train stations through Google Earth. The film’s message begins to shift once again and it poses questions of what truly makes a home and family.

The sparsity of dialogue works to the film’s benefit, for the most part. It highlights the emotional strength of the actors, the haunting score and its pleasing and powerful visuals. Conversely, however, it makes the few clunky conversations all the more noticeable. The idea to utilize Google Earth in Saroo’s search for his family, for example, sprouts inorganically from one of only two conversations with his group of friends. The pace of the film — and its swift and frequent jumps in time and space — grants little space for development of the jovial and light-hearted adult Saroo at which the movie hints. When Saroo does finally find his birthplace via Google Earth, it’s by blind luck after giving up his painstakingly methodological search. The fact that “Lion” is based on a true story makes this implausibility forgivable — perhaps even impressive — but Saroo’s success nonetheless feels somewhat unearned in the context of the film.

Despite occasional blips in pacing and dialogue, “Lion” sticks with you. The film’s tear-jerking ending matches the high emotional stakes of its beginning and holds the audience captive through its 121 minute run time.

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