LionLion (2016)

by Matt Piucci

Simple stories are best, every time. What could be simpler than a child wanting his mother?

Before I was aware of this film, I had heard about a man born in Northern India who had been adopted as a young boy and who was using Google Maps to find a train station he hadn't seen in 25 years. At age 5 or 6, he lost his older brother and fell asleep on a train that took him over 1000 miles from home. After months as a street urchin in the big city, he eventually was adopted by an Australian couple, who provided him with everything a child could need including unconditional love. But the pull of his roots was strong and he just had to find the family he knew missed him dearly, despite not seeing them for 25 years. A terrific story. All a filmmaker had to do was not screw it up, which is easier said than done.

Dev Patel plays the adult version of the story's hero, Saroo. But we don't see him for an hour into the film, the first half chronicles the life of the 5 year old Saroo, who lives in horrific squalor in a Northwest Indian backwater town. No punches are pulled depicting the filth and poverty, but Saroo's family is loving and tight despite their fourth world conditions. His love for his mom, older brother and younger sister is strong and beautiful, and the child actor who plays him (Sunny Pawar) is remarkable. There is very little dialogue in the first half and this kid's sad and knowing eyes are devastating and revealing.

He is an incredibly resilient kid who toils away as if he is an adult, constantly trying to prove to his brother that he is capable of grownup work. One fateful day, his persistence convinces his older brother to take him on a week-long trip that will yield the family some money and involves sneaking on to trains. It ends poorly when Saroo loses his brother, falls asleep on an empty passenger train and is hurtled hundreds of miles from his home into a big city (Calcutta, I think). His nightmare and new life begins. It is utterly heartbreaking to watch this beautiful child both try to act like a grownup in a callous world that is ignoring him and at the same time, mourn and yearn for the family he has lost. India is so large and he has traveled so far from home that he doesn’t even understand the language spoken in the City he ends up in. Everyone there speaks Bengali and he only speaks Hindi. He runs into helpful people, indifferent people and downright nasty people who do not have his best interests at heart. Ultimately he is adopted and sent to Tasmania to meet his new parents.

We eventually get to his early adulthood and there just aren’t any clichéd characters here. The adoptive parents could be, but they are not. Nicole Kidman and David Wenham (Faramir in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) are reserved and excellent. Rooney Mara is quite believable as his girlfriend, a strong independent woman and not a one dimensional cartoon. Even minor roles are well played and real, such as Devian Ladwa’s turn as Saroo's also adopted but deeply troubled brother. Just as Saroo is getting settled into a new home, he meets this other haunted child who also comes from India and is being adopted into the family too. At that point, the plot jumps ahead twenty years to Saroo’s very upper middle class life in Tasmania and his impending entrance into graduate school for hotel management.

He seems to be well-adjusted, truly loves his adopted parents and even has a decent relationship with his disturbed brother who lives in a relatively run down farm shack, away from his family. The irony is not lost here that Saroo or his brother’s original families would have considered these dwellings a palace. At that point, despite all that has been done and how far he has come, the memory of his missing family consumes him. Where are they? Are they still looking? How could I have let them down? At a genteel collegiate party with his upper class multicultural friends, he first reveals his story, which up until that time, no one knew. It was here that the idea is first hatched - he could calculate the speed of trains at that time and figure out how far he may have gotten in two days. Then the Google maps idea comes up where he may be able to recognize something if he is intelligent about it.

His life begins to unravel as he becomes obsessed with finding his birth family. He loses his girlfriend, drops out of school and never tells his adoptive parents what he is going through as he does not want them to think him ungrateful. The film then becomes similar to the beginning where there are long moments of solitude and silence involving only Saroo. Patel does a fine job conveying that same sense of depth and pain behind silent strong eyes. Ultimately, he finds the train station and surrounding area that he knows was once his home.

You know what the payoff is and in the end, has the film earned the highly emotional response they seek from the audience when Saroo and his birth mom are finally reunited? The answer is a resounding yes and I bawled like a baby at this realistic, believable reunion of mother and child, witnessed by a shocked and amazed local populace.

Cynics and those of empty heart might view this film as maudlin and cheesy. And my reading of accounts of the true story show that the transition after the reunion was difficult and uneasy. But the film wisely stops at that point. The payoff is tremendous and emotional.

Simple story? Yes and director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davis did not screw it up. I thought it was beautiful.

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