I have been consciously seeking out emotionally devastating movies in the past few months as I work my way through some of the more high profile and critically acclaimed projects of the past year. There’s something cathartic about watching a film that tugs at the heartstrings and tear ducts; and between White Helmets, Manchester by the Sea, and now the Oscar-nominated Lion, I’ve run the full gauntlet of 2016-17 heartbreakers.
Lion is a biographical film based on a true story about Saroo (played by Sunny Parwar as a child and Dev Patel as an adult) who is tragically separated from his family in India and has to survive alone on the streets of Calcutta until he is adopted by a Tasmanian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Later in life, haunted and compelled by the memories of a life lost, he tries to trace his journey backwards in time and find the home and family that he left behind.
Sunny Pawar as the younger Saroo delivers one of the most compelling and powerful performances I’ve ever seen out of any actor, child or adult. He is charming, with a smile and enthusiasm that lights up the screen, but also incredibly vulnerable. When he’s on screen he draws the audience in very effectively. The first half the film charts his relationship with his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate in what I believe is one the film’s other standout performances) and their separation at a train station. When the older boy goes out to look for work, Saroo accidently falls asleeps on an unoccupied train that takes him hundreds of kilometers away from home into Calcutta where he doesn’t share the language (he speaks Bengali, they speak Hindi predominantly) or know his way back.
This half of the movie is incredibly engaging, and it reminds me a lot both in terms of subject matter and narrative as well as in its quality and effectiveness, of the 1988 film Salaam Bombay (Directed by Mira Nair of The Namesake and Queen of Katwe fame) which also dealt with the brutal realities of life for poor street children. Both films can be bleak and uncompromising, but in their characters there is heart — something for the audience to connect with.
Where Lion falters is when the story jumps forward to Saroo as an adult. It’s not necessarily the performances (Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman do fine with what they are given, but they’re not outstanding), but just the fact that it is overshadowed by the tour de force that was Sunny Pawar, and it loses its sense of urgency and pacing. It’s compelling, but almost as a different story, one that could be connected with the first half, with perhaps a few more drafts of the script to keep it from slogging down and becoming aimless. The romance angle between Saroo and Lucy (Rooney Mara) is uninteresting, and not enough time is given to the relationship between Saroo and his adoptive family, including his troubled brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa as an adult) who also came from a broken background in India but brought with him his own set of traumas. It would have been interesting to draw more parallels between Mantosh and his brother Guddu, or to spend more time delving into his guilt or lack of identity as an Indian.
Yet, even with that said, this is still an impressive film that everyone should go out and watch.