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Lion is an inspirational true story even a film snob could love

Saroo Brierley’s story is almost unbelievable, and the movie does it justice.

Dev Patel in Lion
Dev Patel in Lion
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Saroo Brierley’s story is exhibit A for "you can’t make this stuff up": As a 5-year-old born in a small village in India, Saroo was accidentally separated from his family and, eventually, brought to an orphanage in Calcutta, from which he was adopted by an Australian couple. As an adult, he found them again, partly with the help of Google Earth.



It sounds like the machinations of a product-placement genius, but it actually happened. Brierley wrote about his life story in his memoir, A Long Way Home, and now it’s been turned into Lion.

The Hollywood temptation in adapting material like Brierley’s life for the screen is to make a fairly standard inspirational movie about the power of the human spirit. Lion has all those things, but director Garth Davis, working with a screenplay by Luke Davies, pulls off something much better. Lion is moving, beautifully shot, and clear-eyed about its aims. It’s the kind of inspirational movie even a film snob could love.

Lion is based on a true, incredible story

As the film opens, tiny Saroo (the outstanding Sunny Pawar) lives with his beloved mother, younger sister, and older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), whom he idolizes. His mother is a day laborer, and the family subsists near the edge of poverty.

Sunny Pawar and Abhishek Bharate in Lion
Sunny Pawar and Abhishek Bharate in Lion.

One day, after much begging from Saroo, Guddu brings him along on a trek to find work and tells him to stay on a bench at a railway station while he sorts out some details. Saroo drops off to sleep, but when he wakes up, Guddu has not returned. While looking for his brother, Saroo accidentally ends up on an empty passenger train that begins moving, and goes on for days.

Saroo, who only speaks Hindi, ends up in a part of India where the dominant language is Bengali. Lost, alone, and vulnerable, he navigates the city, trying to find his way back — but of course he has no idea how, and nobody recognizes the name he gives for his home village.

Eventually, after dodging a number of people with bad designs on him, Saroo ends up in an orphanage in Calcutta. The Brierleys, a kind couple from Australia (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), adopt him and, a year later, another boy named Mantosh. Saroo adjusts well to his new life; Mantosh, who is more emotionally disturbed, does not.

Nicole Kidman and David Wenham in Lion
Nicole Kidman and David Wenham in Lion.

The movie then jumps forward 20 years to 2008, and Saroo (now played by Dev Patel), all grown up, embarks on a course of study in hospitality management. He meets and falls in love with an American girl, Lucy (Rooney Mara), who is also in the program. The course attracts a number of international students, including Indians, and while at dinner with them one night, Saroo has an experience that resurfaces feelings he’s long buried about his lost family.

That sends him on a quest to find his mother and siblings — but because he doesn’t even know the name of his home village, and because his mother was illiterate and thus left no paper trail, it’s virtually impossible. He takes to Google Earth to see if he can find a railway station that matches his memory. The search becomes an obsession.

Lion eventually becomes a conventional inspirational drama, but it earns it

The stickiest narrative point that Lion has to navigate is the matter of international adoption, especially white families adopting brown children, which brings with it a whole wicket of ethical issues, from white savior complexes to families unprepared for their children’s emotional challenges to kidnappings.

But Lion handles it well. The Brierleys are kind, patient, and committed to their children, but the movie doesn’t shy away from the challenges both Saroo and Mantosh face, even as adults. Trauma isn’t something that just goes away because a child is removed from its source.

Dev Patel in Lion
Dev Patel in Lion.
The Weinstein Company

Lion is interested in how cultural identities — especially in a globalized world — shape us in indelible ways, getting into our bones even when we think we’ve shed them. But it’s also about bonds of love that stretch across time and mental space. Saroo’s search for his family is motivated by the feeling that they’re searching for him, and love that won’t let go. (Thus, it’s a perfect film for teens and adults to see together during the holidays.)

However, the movie’s best section is its first act, in which 5-year-old Saroo is alone and defenseless. For long stretches, Saroo is quiet and disconnected, unable to even understand the people around him. Shot with restraint and beauty (but without either aestheticizing or fetishizing poverty), it’s effective because it puts us in Saroo’s shoes, understanding the dangers through a 5-year-old’s perspective. Playing young Saroo, Pawar’s face is full of expression, both innocent and, eventually, streetwise.

This section has more in common with neorealism than anything else — it’s almost impressionistic. That impressionism resurfaces later, when as an adult, Saroo begins to dream of his family, and the film works hard, and effectively, to convey his mental and emotional state. So when the film inevitably dips into the swelling music and emotion that belongs to a more conventional "inspirational" drama, it doesn’t feel overblown. We’ve been there with Saroo, and we’re as hungry to come home as he is.

Lion opens in theaters on November 25.

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