If you’re already familiar with Garth Davis, it’s probably from his work on television commercials. Subtlety isn’t high on the list of attributes for that particular discipline, but it is something Davis excels at with his feature-film debut, Lion. It’s one of the most emotionally resonant movies of 2016, yet it is completely devoid of manipulation. The physical, emotional, and spiritual journey of Lion’s protagonist is transcendent. Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies take care to never succumb to heavy-handed melodrama. They tell the story simply, and let the character’s actions speak for themselves. A film can’t stand on writing and direction alone, though, so Davis and Davies brought in a cinematographer (Greig Fraser) who shot the film beautifully, and cast actors who brought the story to life with powerful, but understated performances. Lion is a quiet, unassuming movie and it’s that much more impactful for it.
Lion tells the true story of Saroo Brierley, and it’s based on his book (written with Larry Buttrose) A Long Way Home. The movie begins in India, where five-year-old Saroo and his brother Guddu must steal coal from cargo trains in order to supplement their mother’s below-poverty wages, hauling rocks at construction sites. The level of deprivation the family endures can most easily be described to Westerners as Dickensian.
Guddu, himself no older than 10 or 12, works several jobs, and one evening he tells Saroo to watch their younger sister, Shekila. Guddu is leaving to board a train that will take him to more back-breaking manual labor. Saroo insists he wants to go; he too is strong enough to help. Guddu reluctantly agrees. The two boys are separated when Saroo is too tired to continue the journey. Guddu tells his little brother to wait at the train station for him to come back, and Saroo falls asleep there. He wakes up to discover the station empty, his brother nowhere in sight. Panicking, little Saroo boards a vacant train and again succumbs to sleepiness. He wakes up on the moving train which eventually takes him 1500 kilometers away from home, to Kolkata, an area of India where not even the language is familiar to him.
The first half of Lion details Saroo’s harrowing journey, and Davis and Fraser create an evocative mood. Fraser’s photography is rich and gorgeous. Through the eyes of Saroo, this new part of India is a frightening place, but through the lens of Fraser, it’s also a very beautiful one. Davis also uses fade-to-black several times in the early part of the film, creating an elliptical effect not used much in modern filmmaking. It works as a way to make the audience feel the heightened sense of confusion Saroo is experiencing.
This is, without a doubt, Saroo’s story, and Davis emphasizes that by making him the center of every scene. It’s a bold stylistic choice to filter every event through the prism of Saroo’s understanding, and it pays off magnificently. Even in passages where things are happening that Saroo can’t understand, we see them through his eyes, and that works to forge a very unique bond between character and audience. In one scene, a woman finds Saroo walking forlornly along the railroad tracks, desperate to trace his way back home. She takes him home with her, feeds him, even giving him a bottle of orange soda, and tells him a man will be by to help Saroo find his mother. The arrival of this man turns nefarious, and we urgently want Saroo to get out of there, hoping he’ll understand what might happen to him.
The singular point-of-view of Lion continues in the second half, when Saroo is a young man of thirty. During his trials as a boy, he was rescued by a social worker and then adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John, who live in Tasmania. After a flood of memories come back during an Indian food dinner, Saroo is increasingly plagued by thoughts of his birth mother, of the idea that she has never stopped looking for him. It’s 2007, and a college classmate suggests to Saroo using a new computer program, Google Earth, to try and figure out where his home town is. Saroo is conflicted, because of his fears about how this will make his adoptive parents feel.
There are many movies that succumb to the “white savior” syndrome. It happens when people of color are saved by the benevolent actions of white protagonists. The white characters, almost always the real focus of the movie, learn about the plight of a person or people of color. They learn how to help overcome this plight, and when they do so, they become the hero of the story. Just a few movies that fall into this subgenre are The Ghosts of Mississippi, Dances with Wolves, and The Blind Side (you can find a longer list here). I was apprehensive that Lion would fall into this trope when I first discovered what the film was about. My fears were dispelled. This really is Saroo’s story, from start to finish. Sue and John empathize greatly with him, but they are unable to help him in his journey – besides providing moral support – to find his birth mother.
Nicole Kidman gives a restrained, heartbreaking performance as Sue, a mother who is forever grateful for the gift of raising her adopted son. The two actors portraying Saroo, Sunny Pawar as the younger version and Dev Patel as the adult iteration, are both phenomenal in the role. This is Pawar’s acting debut, and he commands the screen with strength and courage, but also an unmistakable vulnerability. His Saroo is wise beyond his years, because of the hard life he has lived, and he is also a determined survivor. Patel brings the older version of Saroo to life with great emotional sensitivity.
There is only one false note throughout the entirety of Lion. Saroo’s search for his home town flirts with a cliché montage sequence that comes close to including an “A-HA” moment which threatens to tarnish the carefully constructed mood of the movie. Thankfully it doesn’t, and Lion culminates with an emotionally pulverizing climax, among the most fulfilling of any movie of the past few years. It’s a perceptive and delicate piece of filmmaking, and Garth Davis is a director with a promising future.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Lion is a magnificent exercise in subtlety and restraint. It's a movie that takes it's time building to an emotional climax that is heightened because of how unexpected it is.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I shortchanged a few other really good performances, just because I couldn't find a way to artfully include them in the main review. Rooney Mara is quite good as the adult Saroo's love interest.
- David Wenham plays emotionally conflicted in a stoic sense as he deals with another member of his family. There is a subplot involving another boy Sue and John adopt after Saroo. That role is played by Divian Ladwa, and the character, Mantosh, is crippled with mental illness. Ladwa is excellent as presenting the contradictory elements of Mantosh's personality on-screen.