The true story of a young Indian boy separated from his impoverished family only to reunite with them 20 years later is told in the emotional new film Lion, directed by Australian filmmaker Garth Davis (“Top of the Lake”), a tale full of heart and perseverance. Some will perhaps find it easy to compare this to Slumdog Millionaire, another fairly recent (and popular) film about an Indian boy beating the odds to make his way back home, but they are both very different adventures. Instead of the fast-paced Slumdog approach, Lion has a more quiet and subtle style in mind. The film begins in 1986 following five year old Saroo Brierley (played by Sunny Pawar) as he struggles to help his mother and older brother make ends meet.
Being the youngest of two and living a dirt-poor existence has its challenges for the young boy but Saroo’s problems could always be worse. And they do get worse. We wouldn’t have a movie otherwise.
The chaos for Saroo starts on one fateful night while out with his brother. Tired and left alone he falls asleep inside a stationed train waiting for the older sibling to return but when he wakes up the train has already traveled more than 1000 miles and transplanted the boy to a completely different part of India. This is where Lion shifts gears and becomes a survival story as Saroo dumpster dives and barely evades child captors before finally landing in the rights hands of an adoption agency. When a kind-hearted Australian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) adopt young Saroo and transplant him to start a new life in Tasmania, this is where most movies would end their happy story and fade to black.
But at this point we’re only halfway into Lion and that’s a shame because that first half is definitely the stronger half of the film. The second half picks up with Saroo some 20 years later (this time ironically played by Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel) as he sets out on a quest to retrace his steps and regain contact with his long lost family. Convention takes over this latter part of Lion as it shifts gears once again and slows down the story to accommodate, among other things, Saroo’s obsession with Google Earth and his underdeveloped romance with an American transplant (played by Rooney Mara).
Based on Saroo’s real-life memoir titled “A Long Way Home”, we as an audience know how the film version of Lion will turn out before the first scene unfolds. The dramatic weight lies in its execution and director Garth Davis does a commendable job tying two uneven halves as one. The front-end is definitely stronger but the film’s climax is where Lion’s beating heart lies. That’s where love and family finally come together, thankfully in not such a heavy-handed way as some might expect with this type of story. Instead it’s more subtle and profound, making the film’s previous missteps pale in comparison. Lion is a true crowd-pleaser and when its emotional payoff comes full circle it will make even the most cynical filmgoer shed a tear.
Marco’s TIFF Rating: B
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