“Lion” is a survival epic, a poor child’s odyssey through the impersonal poverty and perils of modern India. But thanks to the miracle of modern technology and the magic of movie memory, it’s the feel-good movie of the holidays.
It’s about a little boy from Western India, a vital part of his single-mother’s family support system. Just five years old, Saroo joins his doting older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) in jumping trains so that they can steal coal to sell in the local street market.
If they’re lucky, and nobody catches them and neither breaks his neck leaping on or off the freight cars, they’ll earn enough for the milk that keeps them, their little sister and mother (Priyanka Bose) going for another day.
Saroo, played without a hint of acting affectation by wide-eyed moppet Sunny Pawaer, idolizes Guddu and wants to do everything big brother does. So when there’s the chance for a little field labor (Picking cotton, perhaps? “Bales” are mentioned.), Saroo insists on joining him. They take another train, get separated and the kid dozes off on an empty “de-commissioned” passenger coach that’s locked up and towed cross country.
We experience a child’s terror at waking up to a nightmare of abandonment, with no one on board to help him. And we he arrives in Calcutta, the nightmare widens, as he’s now homeless, an urchin who doesn’t speak Bengali, doesn’t know his surname, doesn’t know the name of the town where he’s from. Every adult he encounters roughly handles him, ignores him or tries to kidnap him for some nefarious purpose.
Going to the callous authorities isn’t much help. That’s how he ends up in the orphanage.
“This is a VERY bad place,” a fellow inmate warns him. And so it is. Until he’s adopted out, packed off to Hobart, Tasmania, where he grows up in easy affluence in the care of an adoring mom (Nicole Kidman) and dad (David Wenham).
But as Saroo (Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire”) grows up into a surfer with hotel management dreams, he’s haunted by the trauma of his past. He’s “Oz” to the core. But a chance dinner party where they serve Indian food gives him his Marcel Proust-“Remembrance of Things Past” “madeleine” moment.
And so his attempt to piece together his “Roots” begins.
First-time feature director Garth Davis wisely puts the first half of this tale in the capable hands of an absolutely magnetic child. You want to pull a Wet Wipe out and clean his face, pinch his cheeks.
Young Pawaer makes us fear for his safety at every turn, empathize with his plight with every peril. Think of the hysteria a parent or child plunges into merely separated in the supermarket at that age. Now imagine the terrors of being plunged into a waking nightmare of abandonment, alienation and despair.Yeah, it could scar you for life.
Pawear, through good directing and careful cutting, seems shocked, even as he’s showing the street-smarts that keep him alive for “one more day,” as the starving “Les Miserables” sing.
Davis serves up those perils in picture postcards of poverty, the dusty India of field labor, hovels and grinding generational poverty. The menaces of being a pretty child alone on the streets are alarming, the “system” that imprisons and then exports street children dismaying.
Kidman is wonderfully cast as the Mother Rescuer, understanding of her new little boy the moment he arrives. He has endured much, and even if he doesn’t speak much English (the first half of the movie is in Hindi and Bengali with English subtitles), she is all re-assurance.
“One day, you’ll tell me all about it.”
Rooney Mara is the classmate the adult Saroo falls in love with who must deal with the trauma and overwhelming guilt he feels about his past, or would if he’d let her.
“I’m not from Calcutta,” he confesses to her. “I’m lost.”
Patel escapes his cinematic “Exotic Marigold Hotel” with a performance that’s subtle and largely non-verbal.
The intrusion of modern technology — the film began life as a “true story” Google Earth commercial — jams us into Saroo’s plight, second-guessing his Google Search decisions.
The script relies on “movie memory,” the total recall the cinema invents for such scenarios, not the way real memory works. But Davis transports us, through flashbacks, to Saroo’s pre-orphan childhood, piecing together details with the adult Saroo as he tries to find his home and his family is the vastness of the subcontinent.
“Lion” is moving and inspiring, a story of cruel fate, cruel people, the kindness of strangers and childhood traumas that we never forget, even as adults. We can only try to understand and find our peace with them.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic material and some sensuality.
Cast: Sunny Pawaer, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, David Wenham
Credits:Directed by Garth Davis, script by Luke Davies, based on the book by Saroo Brierly . A Weinstein Co. release.
Running time: 2:00