“‘Based on a True Story” has replaced “The Adventure Continues” as Hollywood’s most cringeworthy coming attraction tagline. Just because a narrative is rooted in reality doesn’t mean that its chronicler isn’t going to lie, cheat, and otherwise invent the truthfulness required to make it to the curtain shot. By way of distinguishing itself, a film like Lion should open with the disclaimer “Based on a True Story as Told by a Trustworthy Storyteller.”
There was one more flaming circus ring needed to make this leo roar. Lion is the story of a young man who uses Google Earth to reunite with his long-lost family. With rare exception — Atom Egoyan’s Adoration and Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Nerve are two fine examples — it’s a backbreaking task for a filmmaker to wring overpowering visuals out of the simple act of characters interfacing with a computer display, no matter what the size.
When approaching Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose’s nonfiction account, A Long Way Home, screenwriter Luke Davies (Candy, Life) recognized the challenge before him: finding the drama inherent in a tale primarily about an online search. Davies (rightly) called it “the big cinema ‘no-no,’ which is that screens on screens is not good.” True to his word, Davies, and first-time director Garth Davis cold-shoulder any thought given to Sandra Bullock’s schtick in The Net, with its characters huddled around a laptop pointing their fingers in ornamental amazement.
Lion official trailer
At the outset, siblings Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and younger brother Saroo (Sunny Pawar) are a pair of prototypical Dickensian street waifs who spend their days combing the local railyard for lumps of coal, which they use to barter for food and money to help feed their family. Copping coal is one thing, but Guddu strictly prohibits Saroo from accompanying him on the more dangerous “night work.” Saroo’s persistence finally pays off. The five-year-old demonstrates his ability to “lift anything,” yet when it comes to being of practical use to his brother, the babe is barely able to hold his head up. Instead of carting the sleepy lad around in a fireman’s carry, Guddu parks him on the train platform and promises a speedy return before disappearing into the murky night. It’s the last audiences see of him.
The train car Saroo cozies up in turns out to be a sleeper, a decommissioned group of rolling stock en route to Calcutta, a thousand miles from his home. But though he winds up in a world where no one speaks his language and menace lurks around every dark corner, it’s the filmmaker’s intent to take Saroo (and audiences) on a journey of hope, not unrelenting despair. Still, to overlook the threats posed to a tyke alone on the streets of Calcutta would signal a disingenuous move. Without forcing heads to turn away, the subject of child enslavement (or worse) is dealt with in tolerable terms.
It’s been over a month since the screening, and little Sunny Pawar’s cries of “Guddu-u-u-u-u!” continue to haunt my memory. While the boy’s on screen, it’s impossible to look away, unthinkable to leave his corner. Perhaps that’s why it takes a few minutes to get over the energy and force of Pawar’s presence once Dev Patel emerges as the grown-up Saroo.
Saroo is adopted by a comfortable and nurturing Australian couple, John and Sue Brierly (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). It took a moment to recognize the latter under her Harpo Marx wig. As the self-sacrificing adoptive mother, Kidman delivers one of her finest performances in recent memory. The look on her face when Saroo expresses initial interest in looking for his birth mother is as credible as it gets. A similar expression crossed my mother’s face the day I fleetingly expressed interest in looking for my “real” parents.
There’s always a girl in the picture, in this case Rooney Mara as Lucy, Saroo’s love interest. It was a welcome change to see Mara cast in a relatively “normal” role, one that actually allowed her to crack an occasional smile. Unlike her fact-based counterparts, Mara’s Lucy is an amalgam of several women in Saroo’s life. This may account for the underdeveloped nature of the character.
The last third of the picture is dedicated almost exclusively to Saroo’s search. The contemplative closeups of a Christ-like Patel wracking his memory to find the one needed clue to bring him closer to his family throws sand in the narrative wheels. Time would have been better spent on beefing up the Kidman and Mara characters. But flaws aside, one can’t help but be buoyed by the jubilant (and inevitable) reunion that closes the picture, but wait: there’s more. Two plot threads that kept me guessing throughout refuse to fuse until after the final fade. Though it’s decidedly a mixed bag, I’d be lyin’ to say it’s tough to like Lion.