From the very beginning, Lion makes the world seem both small, yet vast. While altogether, the film arouses tear-jerking— this reviewer definitely got a little teary-eyed—and heartwarming emotions, the film’s second half seems to falter slightly to the strong, vivid opening of the first.
Beginning in 1986, Lion follows five-year-old Saroo Khan (Sunny Pawar), who lives with his mother and siblings in a rural suburb of Khandwa, India. Being the sons of a laborer in a poor village, Saroo and his other brother, Guddu, help to supplement her wages with whatever work they can manage to find. In one of the first scenes, we see them scavenging lumps of coal to exchange for milk at the market, revealing the existential struggle these two face on a daily basis. One night, as Guddu plans to take a trip to the neighboring city, Saroo, eager to shadow his brother and to prove he can do anything his other brother can, begs to tag along. Before the challenging night work of the city even begins, Guddu leaves a groggy, tired Saroo on a train platform bench to rest, as he heads off to find work, promising he’ll be right back. When Saroo wakes just hours later, with his brother nowhere to be found, he finds himself panicked and boards a decommissioned train. After unsuccessfully locating Guddu, he falls asleep in one of the train cars, awaking to find himself 1,300 miles away from home in Calcutta. What follows is Saroo’s struggle to live on the streets, in an unfamiliar city, fighting a language barrier (Saroo speaks Hindi, not Calcutta’s Bengali), living off whatever he can. After being spotted by a man in a cafe, Saroo is taken to the police, who try to figure out where he’s from. Young Saroo, mispronouncing his home village (and we later realize, his own name), ends up finding no help, and is taken to an orphanage. After being adopted by an Australian couple, the film fast forwards twenty years later, as Saroo (Dev Patel) is about to head to Melbourne to study hotel management, later struggling to rediscover his past, and his origins.
I think the reason that Lion’s first half is so touching is that it invokes that primal sense of anxiety of becoming lost and separated from those you care about. This anxiety, and almost poetic visuals, show us the world in the eyes of Saroo, and how it evolves throughout his journey. What’s just as amazing is the work of Sunny Pawar, an untrained newcomer, who won the part out of thousands of children who were screen-tested. Pawar is fantastic, with an expressive face that reflects his state of mind from one scene to the next, all without saying a word.
The film’s second half just can’t compete with the compelling and strong opening, but by this time, the audience is already fully invested in Saroo’s journey of childhood rediscovery, that it honestly isn’t too much of a bother. This half of the film becomes so dedicated to Saroo’s search for home that we don’t get the chance to see Saroo in any other light. The possibility for more character development here would have been immense and would have strengthened the film’s latter half. But we see plenty of struggle, as Saroo faces conflict between his adoptive mother and brother, his love interest Sue (Rooney Mara), and his desire to reconnect with his roots.
Otherwise, I thought the film was gorgeous. As we follow young, and even older Saroo, the audience is spoiled with breathtaking views of stunning landscapes that really make Saroo’s journey all that more impactful and stunning. Even the film’s musical score was breathtaking, and can invoke tears by itself. This film is one of strength and courage, something that appeals to our very human nature, and that’s why I highly recommend it for everyone, as everyone experiences and feels the film’s expressive emotion in different ways—something that makes a truly fantastic piece.