A Beautiful Film about Finding Home - Review of "Lion" (2016)

Dev Patel in the film "Lion"

Dev Patel in the film "Lion"

I walked into my house on Friday evening and found my wife and daughter watching Lion, the film directed by Garth Davis. Do I want to watch this now?, I thought, followed by the question I nearly always ask of Oscar-nominated movies since seeing Schindler's List, is it going to bum me out?

I sat down anyway and within minutes was engrossed in the film. A brief non-spoiler description of the story:

5yr old Saroo, son of an illiterate laborer in a tiny village in India, gets separated from his older brother on a train platform. Exhausted from searching for his brother, he falls asleep aboard a train which, days later, leaves him stranded in Calcutta. Unable to speak the local dialect, unaware of where he is, he spends months living on the streets, scavenging for food and avoiding the many dangers around him. 

Later when he is found by authorities, he is unable to tell them his mother's actual name (she is "Ammi" - Mom) or the name of his village. He is sent to an orphanage where he is later adopted by an Australian couple. 

25 years later, the adult Saroo becomes haunted by the open questions of his missing family. Where did he come from? What happened to his mother, brother, and little sister? Are they still out there? Are they looking for him? Saroo begins a meticulous search of both his memories and the new software Google Earth to trace his way back into the past. 

The movie is really is in two parts. The first follows the young Saroo (played by the amazing Sunny Pawar) as he navigates an indifferent metropolis and often deceptive adults offering help as he tries to survive on his own. The cinematography by Grieg Fraser is truly beautiful, with vibrant colors and sweeping views, partly emphasizing the dreamlike nature of Saroo’s experience. 

The second half of the story follows the adult Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel), a young man thousands of miles and a lifetime of new memories away from India, as he begins to realize that there is a gaping hole in his identity underneath his adopted homeland. Additionally, the look of the film changes during this period with a more intimate documentary look, often playing in contrast to Saroo’s memories of his childhood in India. 

There is a certain point in the story in which you realize that as well-meaning as Saroo's adoptive family, Tanzanian friends, and American girlfriend is, there is no way for him to go forward without finding what happened to his biological mother and brother. 

"What if you never find them," his girlfriend asks. "What if you keep searching forever." Saroo doesn't have an answer for that, and we know that the risk he (and the audience) are taking is that his commitment to finding his family may never end.  

Strangely, much of the narrative of the film is driven by technology, as the real Saroo Beirley (whose story is shown at the end of the film in still pictures) used Google Earth to trace back his fateful train ride from nearly 25yrs before in order to find his family’s tiny village. A similar story at a different time in history would have had a much less satisfying result. But, ultimately, Saroo’s journey is about the enduring power of love, memory, and our need for identity. 

To answer those original questions, I’m so glad I sat down to watch this with my family. And, no, it didn’t bum me out, but that’s not to say that there weren’t some tears at the end.