Lion does a good job telling a lifelong story in two hours. We know that there’s no way to truly experience what Saroo Brierley lived, but Lion comes as close as a movie probably can to encapsulating his life, for the first 30-40 years or so.
As a child in India, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) waits on a bench at a train station for his older brother to return. When he never does, Saroo gets on the train and ends up in Calcutta, from whence he is adopted by Sue and John Brierly (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). As an adult (Dev Patel), Saroo begins to use Google Earth, new at the time of 2008/2010, to scan the train stations of India to try to find his old village.
It takes a good 50 minutes to really get invested in Lion, and that’s about when Saroo becomes Dev Patel. The first half was important though. All the dynamics established between the characters pay off in the drama of the second half. The beginning captures Saroo getting lost from a child’s perspective, with very little dialogue, and what is spoken may be foreign to him. The Brierlys also adopt a second son, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) who has behavioral issues that exacerbate relationships.
Saroo’s spiral becomes dreamlike, incorporating harrowing childhood flashbacks and glimpses of his modern relationship to Lucy (Rooney Mara) straining. He learns that his assumptions about his adoptive mother were wrong. Throughout this segment, we are so immersed in Saroo’s turmoil, as much as we can experience it vicariously without having lived through such a seemingly unsolvable search. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack when you can’t even be sure it was a needle or a bobby pin.
This is the performance we’ve known Patel was capable of, and that was promised since Slumdog Millionaire. Pawar is good too, not precocious and as I said, captures the sense of being lost as a child. But it’s as an adult that Saroo fully comprehends his identity crisis and thinks about the family who could still be waiting for him, and it is an intense crisis.
Lion is an intense and harrowing story that rewards you for going through it, and I’m sure still hardly the reward Saroo felt at the end of his journey. But the porno title for Lion could totally be Loin.