Director: Garth Davis
Stars: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara
3 (out of 5) Globes
It would have been so easy for “Lion” to be a noble stinker. The true story of an Indian boy, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who accidentally finds himself far from home, it could have been a “Blind Side” clone, focusing on the nice Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) who adopted him. When he grows into a handsome, dreamily long-haired 20-something (there on out played by Dev Patel), it could have been about how he assimilated into first world culture, pulling himself up by the bootstraps.
Amazingly, “Lion” is neither of these films, nor any of the other dodgy movies it could have been. The rescuing white couple quickly recede into the background, and the second half winds up being about how Patel’s version of Saroo struggles to find not only his errant mother and brother, but rectify being the one who made it — a poor person whose tragedy became a blessing, except one that made him realize that the unlucky greatly outnumber the lucky.
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Granted, some of that simply has to do with the story itself. “Lion” tells it all. How Saroo became an orphan could have been a quickie first act. Instead it dominates the entire first hour. While on a trip with his brother from the slums to the nearest city, the young Saroo falls asleep on a bench. When he wakes up, alone, he innocently stumbles onto what looks like a disused train. It then takes off on a service run, with him the only passenger. Some 1600 kilometers later, Saroo finds himself in Calcutta. He doesn’t speak the same language, and even if he knew Bengali instead of Hindi, he has no idea what his hometown is called.
Harrowing events follow, including a near-brush with child prostitution. When Saroo is belatedly swooped up by child services, he finds himself with new parents across the Pacific — played by Wenham and a red mop-topped Kidman — who have forgone conceiving a child themselves so they can take in those without parents. Saroo grows into a fine young man: mature, ambitious, sexy, ready to go into the hotel management business. But just as this looks like an accidental prequel to the Patel-starring “The Exotic Marigold Hotel,” Saroo is suddenly flooded with sharp memories of his traumatic childhood. He becomes consumed with scouring Google Earth for his forgotten home, shutting out his parents and even his beloved girlfriend (Rooney Mara).
“Lion” doesn’t sugarcoat its story. Saroo goes to some dark, even cruel places in the pursuit of his past; he’s allowed to be in the right and in the wrong. It could stand to have more vivid characters or even to take more time to flesh out certain ideas; it sometimes feels like it’s speeding through a complex story. But the best thing you can say about “Lion” is it doesn’t seem to have a readymade audience. It’s an inspiring story that’s also a bumpy one, and the only reason it has a happy ending is because Saroo just happened to live in an age when technology actually made his quest slightly less than impossible. It has familiar Western actors to attract Western viewers, but they never come close to dominating the film. It treats Saroo’s entire story with equal screentime, so one part is never more important than the other. And it’s pretty, thanks to filmmaker Garth Davis — who previously handled half of the directing duties on Jane Campion’s miniseries “Top of the Hill” — without becoming a travelogue. That may make it sound like “Lion” is more defined by what it isn’t than what it is, which is a fair cop. But for a middlebrow docudrama, it's considerably better than "it could even been worse."
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge