Friday, February 10, 2017
LION (Garth Davis, 2016)
Based on a true story, LION tracks a boy from rural India who gets incomprehensibly lost in 1986, is adopted by an Australian couple, and uses technology twenty-five years later to search for his family. Saroo, played by Sunny Pawar as a boy and Dev Patel as a young adult, falls asleep on a train platform while waiting for his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), who has taken off to work during the evening. When Saroo awakens, Guddu is nowhere to be found. He looks for him on a train but gets stuck on one that is not carrying passengers and takes him more than a thousand kilometers away from home.
The five-year-old boy arrives in Kolkata unable to speak the different dominant language in this part of the country. He doesn’t know his mother’s name, and no one can find the town he calls home on a map. For awhile Saroo must survive on his own on the streets, including eluding those looking to take advantage of him. Eventually a stranger takes him to a police station, but with no responses to the notices placed in newspapers, he is put in an orphanage. John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) adopt Saroo, so he is flown to Tasmania to begin a life with a new family. As a young man he feels the urge to find his biological family. With the emotional support of his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) and a landmark image from his memory, Saroo obsessively scans Google Earth to locate where his home is.
The events in LION are primed for the most persistent heartstring-tugging, yet director Garth Davis holds the story at a cool remove. It’s the difference between recognizing a dire situation and feeling it. The Dickensian first half features its share of harrowing moments. Saroo quickly learns that trusting anyone is dangerous, which only serves to keep him on the streets longer. Even when help of a sort is provided, the boy is trading one bad situation for another. His adoptive parents are extraordinarily kind, but moving from one continent to another is also laced with trauma. Davis expects these developments to be moving at face value. Instead LION flirts with a wallow in miserabilism.
In the second half Saroo is a young adult who identifies more with his Australian upbringing than his Indian heritage. His newfound longing seems more like dramatic convenience than something that has been eating at him every day for most of his life. The search itself, while an incredible feat, is not dynamically portrayed. LION gets caught up in the process of Saroo’s story. Here’s how he got lost, here’s how he was saved from bad circumstances, here’s how he tries to answer what has been a mystery for many years. The particulars aren’t uninteresting, but they come at the expense of empathizing with Saroo’s experience.
Saroo struggles at the two stages depicted, yet LION mostly shows him rolling with whatever he faces. Perhaps the person whose life inspired the film was so easily adaptive, but smoothing over his emotional journey robs the material of the power inherent in it. What Saroo endures as a kid is inconceivable, but it’s handled from the point of view of an uninvolved observer than the subject. Although Patel does the most with what he’s given to express the character’s anguish, he’s challenged to find multiple ways to keep striking the same note. What could have been a potent tearjerker in LION ends up resembling a skillful but unmoving recreation of a remarkable tale.