Films detailing poverty, especially in a foreign country, can be difficult to convey with any kind of accuracy. Visuals are one thing, but to truly communicate what an all-encompassing struggle it is for people with little to no means, you have to be willing to literally get down and dirty.
Few films have succeeded in this as well as Lion. Based on a true story, it details the journey of Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a 5-year-old Indian boy who, along with his brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), must scrap with all his might just to get any kind of meager provisions for his family.
While on one of their daily work missions, the two get separated at a train station. Saroo winds up on a train that takes him thousands of miles away from home. Struggling just to survive, he winds up in an orphanage, from where an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), eventually adopt him.
Years later, the now-adult Saroo (Dev Patel) is living a nice, middle-class life until a conversation with his girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara), and other friends leads him into an obsessive quest to find out where he comes from.
A synopsis does not come close to giving a sense of the detail that director Garth Davis and writer Luke Davies put into the film. The stories of the two Saroos are each given around an hour of film time to play out, meaning that the film can dive deep into each of their lives. This is a luxury you don’t often see in movies, and it pays off with a profound emotional resonance.
That being said, the film could have been tightened up in certain areas. The older Saroo’s story becomes a bit repetitive, and a conflict with his adopted brother, another Indian orphan, never truly pays off. Also, in an attempt to accurately portray the Brierleys, the filmmakers saddle Kidman and Wenham with horrendous wigs that serve as nothing but distractions.
Thankfully, the acting shines throughout the film, lessening the impact of these mistakes. Pawar is nothing short of remarkable, giving a depth to the young Saroo that actors of any age would do well to emulate. Patel is nearly as good, although his half of the story is not nearly as dramatic. Kidman, Wenham, and Mara are fine, but as the film appropriately keeps the focus on Saroo, their roles are limited.
Stories of survival and redemption come in all shapes and sizes, but the one found in Lion is truly special. Hiccups aside, it’s a film that touches the heart and inspires the soul.