3.5 Stars (out of 4)
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Lion releases in theaters across North America on Christmas Day.
Lion‘s heart-wrenching international odyssey is carried on the tiny shoulders Sunny Pawar, the adorable star of this true story of a lost Indian boy’s attempt to find home.
5-year-old Saroo (Pawar) lives in a village in Madhya Pradesh with his preteen brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), baby sister Shekila (Khushi Solanki), and their mother (played by Priyanka Bose). Guddu and tiny Saroo do a variety of odd jobs — legal and otherwise — to supplement their mom’s wages as a laborer.
One night, Guddu takes Saroo with him on the train to look for work in a neighboring town, leaving Saroo asleep on a bench on the train platform. After Saroo wakes up alone, he searches for Guddu on an empty passenger train before dozing off in one of the seats. When Saroo wakes again, the train is moving, and it doesn’t stop for two days.
Saroo ultimately winds up in Calcutta, more than 1,000 kilometers from home. He doesn’t speak the local language, and he couldn’t explain where he was from even if he did because he’s just a little kid. As far as he knows, his mother’s full name is “Mom.”
His cleverness and adaptability help him survive on the street for months, staying fed and avoiding child traffickers. He’s so competent that it’s easy to forget that homelessness is just as new to him as the city and the language.
What makes this sequence so effective is that little Sunny Pawar is the picture of childhood vulnerability, with skinny limbs, chubby cheeks, and giant, brown eyes. His very being calls out to evolutionary parental instincts: “Protect me!” Yet, as Saroo, he’s overlooked by most adults as just another street kid. (A note at the film’s end states that 80,000 children go missing in India every year.)
Eventually, Saroo winds up in an orphanage that looks more like a prison. The staff do what they can to find the boy’s mom under the limitations of Saroo’s knowledge and communication technology circa 1986 (i.e. an ad in the local newspaper). When their efforts fail, kindly Mrs. Sood (Deepti Naval) shows Saroo a photo of John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley: his new adoptive parents from Australia.
After a typical Tasmanian childhood, Saroo (played as adult by Dev Patel) moves to Melbourne for a course in hotel management, falling in with a group of international students that includes some Indians. Meeting them awakens buried memories of his birth family, inspiring a years-long quest to determine exactly where he’s from.
When Saroo starts his search in 2008, he has at his disposal the satellite images of Google Earth and tables of historic data on train speeds. Even if he’d wanted to look for his birth family at a younger age, the technology to do so wasn’t widely accessible.
Despite the cast’s star-power, most of the supporting roles feel peripheral to the story. That applies especially to Rooney Mara as Saroo’s American girlfriend, Lucy, who exists just to be pushed away by Saroo as he becomes obsessed with his research. Wenham is solid in his few scenes, and Kidman shines in a monologue about why she adopted Saroo.
An important character who could have used more screentime is Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), another orphan from India the Brierley’s adopted after Saroo. Young Mantosh (played by Keshav Jadhav) arrives in Australia with a load of emotional and behavioral problems, probably as a result of whatever accident left all the scars on his head. The boys share a fraught relationship that boils over when Saroo’s search reminds him of the kind older brother he had before Mantosh.
Bollywood fans will recognize a number of actors like Bose, Naval, and Pallavi Sharda. Stars Tannishtha Chatterjee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui have small but memorable parts as well.
Patel’s performance is compelling, as Saroo’s life crumbles under the weight of trying to appease two mothers: one who’s still searching for him and another who’s afraid of losing him herself. The cocky young man who starts the program in Melbourne is gradually replaced by a shaggy haired, wild-eyed loner who hallucinates his long-lost family.
But Lion ultimately belongs to Sunny Pawar, who is quite skilled for such a young actor. It’s impossible not to fall in love with him.