You can be forgiven for initially mixing up Slumdog Millionaire and Lion. Both films depict the rural poor in India, star cute kids, and eventually star Dev Patel. But where Slumdog Millionaire is a dramatic tale of romance, Lion is full of heart and pain and (eventually) happy endings. Garth Davis’s directorial debut is a touching and beautiful retelling of a true story.
We meet Saroo when he’s five years old and played by the phenomenal Sunny Pawar. Saroo and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) take odd jobs while their mother works as a manual laborer. When Saroo gets separated from his older brother at a train station, Saroo gets sleepy, boards an inactive train and wakes up miles away on a train speeding toward Calcutta. Eventually, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and grows into a bright and proud young man (Patel). Having worked so hard to be thankful for what he has, Saroo becomes determined to find his mother and uses all of his developed world resources to find her.
It’s incredible enough that this is all based on a true story but it’s our two leads that really elevate the film. Young Sunny Pawar is a joy to watch and one of the most adorable kids out there. Whether he’s smiling and joking or shivering in a small cave, his emotions and thoughts are clear to read on his face. Patel excels as the older Saroo, communicating whirlwinds of emotions and crises of identity with genuine pain and despair. As beneficial as his adoption was, it’s clear that Saroo feels left out of his own culture and sees finding his mom as not only the right thing to do, but also the selfishly right reason to investigate.
As Saroo grapples with who he is and where his mother is, he starts to descend into madness and obsession. He quits his job so he can stay home all day and search for his little town on Google Maps. Patel captures this manic energy perfectly, deflecting questions and pulling away from his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara). Mostly known for his music videos, director Garth Davis turns in an emotional and respectable first try. The scenery is stunning, with lots of aerial shots that show poverty in India contrasted against the urban streets in Australia.
By the end of Lion, there didn’t seem to be a dry eye in sight. And who can blame them? Sure, the film’s not knock-it-out-of-the-park incredible, but the true story of Saroo helps make this film an emotional and cathartic ride for anyone that likes happy endings.