For the fourth time, my wife and I tried to see Hidden Figures, and couldn’t, because it was sold out. But we were in the mood for some filmed entertainment, and decided to see Lion instead, as an adventure, knowing essentially nothing about it.
This is rare for us. We make every effort to be informed film consumers; reading reviews, checking metacritics and rottentomatoes.com, watching trailers, referencing IMDB. This isn’t difficult or time consuming, and we feel like it’s well worth our time to make sure our movie-going dollars are well-spent. We made an exception for Lion. We knew exactly three things going in. We knew it was nominated for Best Picture. We knew it had a high rottentomatoes score (via hearsay; we didn’t look it up). And a friend on Facebook had said she was glad it was Oscar-nominated, as it was the kind of family-friendly entertainment that never gets nominated for big awards. That was it. We didn’t know who was in it, what it was about, who directed, or anything else.
The experiment was a rousing success. Lion tells a powerful, moving, human story. It’s exceptionally well filmed, written, and acted. It is one of those ‘celebration of the human spirit’ movies that ends up, on reflection, raising more troubling questions than the immediate issues it addresses. Still, I recommend it highly. And it’s possible I may have caught my eyes watering a time or two. Air quality in the theater, probably.
As the movie begins, we see two young brothers, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), climbing on and around a train somewhere in India. Saroo looks to be around 5, and Guddu is maybe 8. The train is transporting coal, which they steal, and eventually sell for two modest bags of milk. They’re poor kids, in other words, and their home is a single room about the size of a single cow stall. Their Mom (Priyanka Bose), works lugging rocks. That appears to be the only work she can find. She asks Saroo to watch his younger sister Shekila (Khushi Solanke), which Saroo complains about. There is no evidence that this anything but a loving family, but these boys aren’t in school, run around in dangerous places, and steal for food. Poverty doesn’t get much more abject.
Guddu also works, at a laborers job, and as he heads out, Saroo wants to go with him. This would leave 3-year-old Shekila alone and unsupervised, but Saroo doesn’t care; he wants to prove he’s a big boy and can work too. Finally, Guddu relents, and he and Saroo head off. They reach a train station, and Guddu tells Saroo to wait on a bench, while he goes to see about work.
And so Saroo waits. Eventually he falls asleep. Guddu does not return. A train pulls in. Saroo wakes, sees the train and is curious. It has one door open, no passengers. He climbs aboard. The one door closes, and the train begins moving.
We can see a sign informing us that the train is heading off for maintenance, and not accepting passengers. Saroo doesn’t know that, though, and for two days, he’s the only passenger as the train rockets through the Indian landscape. He finds an apple core, so he’s got that much food. Finally, the long train ride ends. He’s in Calcutta. He has no idea, though; he only speaks Hindi, and almost nobody he meets speaks anything but Bengali. Saroo doesn’t know this, of course; he’s only five. He only knows that people talk nonsense to him, and don’t understand his responses. He’s lost in a huge, impoverished city, without money, family, any way to communicate, or any way to survive.
Somehow, he stays alive. He finds a Hindu temple, and is able to eat temple offerings. He finds the Hooghly River, and can drink from it. A nice-seeming woman, who speaks some Hindi, brings him home to her apartment and feeds him his first decent meal. But when she introduces him to her ‘friend,’ (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) a good looking guy in his forties, the boy’s creeped out, as well he might be–the guy appears to be a Fagin-type, a boy-prostitute recruiter. Saroo takes off, at a full sprint.
The first third of the movie is about this kid, this five-year old, surviving in a dangerous city, despite not speaking the language and having no resources at all except his courage, his intelligence, his instincts, and his ability to run away really fast. It’s terrifying and the sense of danger is palpable. The kid, Sunny Pawar, is absolutely terrific, but so is the filmmaking, which never lets us lose track of this one child, while also reminding us of the hundreds of thousands of impoverished and desperate children lost in the cruelty and danger of Calcutta.
Eventually, he ends up captured and placed in an orphanage. A notice is posted, with his picture, but we realize there’s no chance of his mother seeing it; and anyway, the notice is in Bengali. We see him in an orphanage school, sitting there, completely uncomprehending. But salvation awaits. An Australian family wants to adopt an Indian orphan. He’s got a new family, an ocean away.
And so, he gets on a plane, and at the airport, he meets John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley. He’s going to be raised as an Aussie. He will move from abject destitution to middle-class luxury. He’s got a TV, and a sailboat. They teach him how to play cricket. He’s fine.
Not long afterward, he also gets a brother, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav), a deeply damaged young boy, also Indian, but as troubled as Saroo is well-adjusted.
Cut ahead twenty five years, and Saroo is played by Dev Patel, and Mantosh by Divian Ladwa. And Saroo is fine. He’s in grad school, in Hotel Management. He’s met a fellow grad student, Lucy (Rooney Mara). (Manosh is still pretty screwed up). But Saroo is also discontented. He remembers his childhood, his home in India, Guddu and his Mom, the long train ride and those horrible months in Calcutta. He becomes obsessed with finding his Mom. Not that he doesn’t love his Aussie Mom; he and Sue are very close. But he can’t shake it, this need to reconnect.
He tells the other students in his program about his past, and they’re entirely supportive. And one of them suggests that he look on Google Earth. Maybe that could be a tool he could use to find his home. That’s the rest of the movie; about Saroo’s search on Google Earth for his home, and his growing obsession with finding his family.
Nicole Kidman is terrific as Sue Brierley. I think that’s one of the great acting challenges, to play a genuinely good human being. (Villains are comparatively easy). Anyway, she nails it. Rooney Mara is somewhat wasted, in this ‘world’s most supportive girlfriend’ role. Dev Patel is likewise great, though he might want to move on a bit from these ‘Indian urchin who becomes upwardly mobile’ roles. Anyway, it’s a fine movie, a glorious film debut for Garth Davis, who comes from the world of advertising, and who has another film in post-production, an as-yet untitled film about Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara (with Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus).
Anyway, we took a chance on a film we knew nothing about, and feel well-rewarded for it. It’s a powerful and family-affirming film. It also reminds us that there are hundreds of thousands of desperately impoverished children all around the world, who don’t end up with a lucky second chance in the privileged West. So that’s also a thought that lingers.