One thing becomes immediately clear when watching the well textured and low key Lion on the big screen: director Garth Davis, best known for directing several episodes of the Australian TV series “Top of the Lake,” has a gritty vision for scale. It’s that perceptive quality that allows this feature film debut to stand out as something more than the usual season’s offering of Oscar bait. Opening with aerial shots that pan high over landscapes, Davis wants to remind the audience that the world is huge. He emphasizes this by connecting the grandiosity of beautiful swirls of colorful mountain, desert and ocean panoramas with a little black dot running across a field. The camera follows the dot but never zooms into this figure. Instead, he keeps the humanity distant. After all, this is a true story about how a 5-year-old Indian boy got lost far from home and was adopted by an Australian couple before finding the resources to find his way back to his village as an adult.
Lion is divided into two sections. Working from a script by Luke Davies who adapted the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, the film’s protagonist, Davis’ awareness to capture the vastness of the world works best when working with the 5-year-old version of Saroo (Sunny Pawar). The scope of the world is further accented by this tiny actor, an expressive kid for all his wiry frame allows. He and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) are introduced poaching coal from a moving train. When Guddu finds work outside of their small village where their mom collects rocks for a living, Saroo wants to go work with Guddu, but when the elder brother tells him he’s too small for the work, the kid says, “I can lift anything” and wraps his tiny fingers around the frame of a bicycle and picks it up off the ground, at least to his chin, his body trembling as he holds it there.
The child has spunk and charm. His brother caves and invites him to come along. But the journey tires Saroo, so Guddu allows him to take a nap on a bench at a bustling train station. The boy wakes up sometime after nightfall to find himself alone under the harsh lights of the large, desolate industrial structure. Just as the landscapes in the opening shots of the movie showed us the expanse of the world, so does the metal construction, which dwarfs the little boy. The cold steeliness of the man-made world is further enhanced when Saroo finds himself trapped inside a train car that eventually creeps into motion, its horn drowning out his cries for help. He is spirited away by the machine across a seemingly never-ending landscape for days, until he is dumped into the bustle of harsh Calcutta, a world with a different language and little regard for the pestering of a tiny kid no one can understand. At one point, he crawls up a pole, above the sea of people and calls out the name of his brother, repeating it like a lost cub mewing for its mother.
This section of the film speaks to the power of the medium of cinema without leaning on dialogue for exposition. The viewer is constantly reminded of Saroo’s insignificance, under the sprawling steel arches of a bridge so wide it needs two rows of lights to illuminate the empty road below to the tight, shallow focus on the kid against a crowd that knocks him about as if he wasn’t there. Everything from landscapes to industrial development to crowd shots speak to the sad insignificance of our hero, and the big screen experience enhances that.
After some more disturbing adventures of hopes quickly dashed before he enters an orphanage and is ultimately adopted by the Australian couple (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) who will raise him, the film jumps about 20 years into the boy’s future. Even in Melbourne, Davis continues to find ways to capture the enormity of the world, even if it feels less visceral. The elder version of Saroo (Dev Patel) is tall, lanky and broad shoulder. Just as he seems nowhere close to the little being who got lost in Calcutta, it also becomes apparent that the memory of his past has become an almost faded, ghostly story, almost as if what had happened to him was a dream.
It’s 2008, and the adult Saroo is studying hotel management. For simplicity’s sake, he introduces himself to the class as coming from Calcutta, even though he has a perfect Australian accent. His past soon comes to light via a charming flirtation with one of his classmates, Lucy (Rooney Mara), and mutual friends introduce him to something called Google Earth. Saroo’s journey back home commences and vastness becomes something entirely different for this more adult, sophisticated half of the film.
Though less reliant on the power of images to capture that sort of scary mystery of the world, the second half of the movie brings a more emotional impact. Saroo’s sense of self is clearly unfulfilled and a girlfriend just won’t satisfy that. Even his relationship with the couple that raised him, who he calls mom and dad without any sense of hesitation, is so incomplete that he attributes their adoption of him as something practical. In the film’s most emotional scene, however, his adoptive mother breaks down the truth of their motivation, humbling Saroo quickly.
This part of the film would not pay off were it not for the acting. Kidman in particular, working against a true-to-life look of Saroo’s real mother of distracting curly red hair, gives the film profound heart. They aren’t a perfect family. They also adopted a second Indian orphan, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav and Divian Ladwa), with emotional issues that brings the difficulties and the tragic innate incompleteness of adopting into sharp focus. Still, a love always lingers when motivation comes from a pure place. By revealing the fragile ties that hold this family together, the movie earns its payoff that the expanse and distance in the world, be it geographic or emotional, is no match when an innate love still lingers. Lion is a beautiful movie that will hopefully stand out to some as one of the better choices to make for a crowded weekend of holiday film going.
Lion runs 118 minutes, is in Bengali, Hindi and English with English subtitles and is rated PG-13. It opens in our South Florida area on Dec. 25 at the following theaters:
- American Multi-Cinema, Inc. Aventura Mall 24 Theatres Aventura
- American Multi-Cinema, Inc. Sunset Place 24 Theatres South Miami
- Cinemark USA Cinemark Paradise 24 Davie
- Cinepolis Grove 13 Theatre Coconut Grove
- Regal Entertainment Group Oakwood 18 Hollywood
- Regal Entertainment Group South Beach 18 Miami Beach
West Palm Beach/Boca Raton
- Regal Entertainment Group Sawgrass 23 Sunrise
- Ashurst, Annette Movies of Lake Worth Lake Worth
- Carmike Cinemas, Inc. Parisian 20 West Palm Beach
- Cinepolis Cinepolis Jupiter 14 Jupiter
- Regal Entertainment Group Shadowood 16 Boca Raton
- Regal Entertainment Group Regal Treasure Coast Mall Jensen Beach
For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. The Weinstein Company invited us to a preview screening for awards consideration.