The debut feature from director Garth Davis (who helmed most episodes of the excellent series “Top of the Lake”) feels like it was designed in a laboratory for the express purpose of making human cry tributaries of tears. The true-life story based on the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley (the subject of the film) and adapted by Luke Davies is heartbreaking at every turn, beginning with the adorable, five-year-old Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar) who gets separated from his older brother while traveling by train across India’s vast railway. He doesn’t know the name of the town where he’s from or how to even pronounce or spell his last name correctly, so after fruitless attempts to find his mother while living on the streets, he is thrown into the Indian orphanage system.
One of the few strokes of luck in Saroo’s young life was being adopted by Australian couple Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who take him back to Australia to live a comfortable life, along with a more difficult adopted brother, who never really stops being a problem for both Saroo and his new parents. When he gets to college age, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire and the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films) finds it difficult to suppress his longing to return to India to find his real mother, but he realizes that simply hopping on a train hoping to find a place that looks familiar isn’t going to work.
Saroo has a few lingering memories about where he became separated from his brother or what his homeland looked like, but an encounter with other Indians living in Australia who also were adopted, sparks a need in him to discover who is truly is. Thankfully at the time, Google Earth was becoming popular and commonly used, and he uses its satellite imagery to calculate a certain portion of his life in India. He becomes so obsessed with the search that he alienates his loving adoptive parents and his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), all of whom support his search, but because they aren’t Indian, he doesn’t feel like they truly understand what he’s going through or who he is.
I won’t reveal how the film ends, but you can probably guess from the fact that there’s a book and movie about Saroo’s search, that he figures out something about his roots. That being said, the film does not play out how I thought it would, and there’s little doubt in my mind that you will weep big tears toward the end of Lion. Patel is a particular favorite of mine, but outside of his run on HBO’s “The Newsroom,” I don’t think his abilities as an actor have been well tapped into since Slumdog. He carries a great deal of angst and misery in his performance here, and if we don’t feel his pain, the film doesn’t work.
Shot elegantly by Greig Fraser (who also shot Rogue One, Zero Dark Thirty, and Foxcatcher, among others), who has a real gift for finding the right look for a film based on its subject and not imposing a style onto his works. For example, the texture and atmosphere on display in scenes shot in India look quite a bit different than those in Australia. Lion is certainly a well-made film, but it was tough to get over the feeling of being poked and prodded by the filmmakers, looking for that one spot on your heart that will flood your eyes.
All films are a series of manipulations, I get that. But the best filmmakers know how to work the heart in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re having surgery, and director Davis isn’t quite there. I think the story and Patel’s performance are terrific, but the rest left me feeling icky—I’m not sure how else to describe it. All of that being said, you could do a hell of a lot worse with what is in theaters right now.