TIFF: Lion

I was a little caught off guard by audience reaction to this movie at TIFF. I’d read the book and liked it well enough but the movie didn’t strike me as particularly must-see. Boots on the ground at TIFF though had me hearing something different. In fact, had me hearing that it was giving La La Land a run for its money as People’s Choice. People’s Choice! So I did what any sane woman would do: I gave up my tickets to I Am Not Your Negro and secured tickets to a last-minute additional screening of Lion.

mv5bndjimtnhmgmtntewzs00zdazlthhmdutngm4nzfhnjzhy2rjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtexndq2mti__v1_Lion tells the true story of a 5 year old Indian boy named Saroo. Separated from his brother one night, he falls asleep on a train and wakes up miles away from his home, his family, from people who speak his language. He survives on his own for weeks before being thrown into an orphanage and then shipped down to an Australian family who adopt him.

Once grown, Saroo finds himself thinking about the mother he disappeared from, who might very well still be looking for him. So he uses the only tool he has available to him: Google Earth. With little information to go on, he scans the internet every night for signs of his childhood home. It’s an impossible mv5bmdu4zgi4yjgtywzlns00nte2ltg1mmutytk2njflnzhjotrjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtexndq2mti__v1_task but Saroo is miraculously lucky. Off he goes to India, to see if he can locate any family near the place he once called home.

Sunny Pawar will quickly win your heart as 5 year old Saroo. His big, adorable eyes immediately indicate his innocence and vulnerability. His half of the movie is gripping and heart-wrenching because Pawar easily elicits our sympathy. While a lost child living on the streets would surely be attended to here, in India it is unfortunately all too common a sight. His pleading is ineffectual. I felt ready to shout at the movie screen myself. And such a tiny thing navigating the streets of Calcutta – it’s an indelible image that speaks directly to your heart.

When Saroo is sent to his new Mummy (Nicole Kidman) in Australia, it becomes a new movie: a fish out of water experience for a little boy who probably didn’t even know that such a country existed. But for all intents and purposes, Saroo grows up Australian. His brown skin gives him away, but he feels a fraud among other immigrants, his culture and background a mystery to him. Dev Patel plays grown-up Saroo, a man searching the Internet not just for his hometown but really also for himself. He doesn’t want to hurt his adoptive mother though, so he pulls away to protect her.

Unfortunately, Google Earth isn’t all that interesting or cinematic. Garth Davis chose to stick with Saroo’s real-life methods but it’s not thrilling or sexy on mv5bndu0mgqxndmtndc5zc00otm4lwe0zmqtndjmzdiwmju1zjezxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtexndq2mti__v1_the screen. It literally is just a guy staring a screen night after night for weeks, months, years. He’s moody and emotional in between, throwing his relationship (with Rooney Mara, in an underwritten role) onto the rocks. Nicole Kidman gives an admittedly strong and stirring performance as his mother and helps bridge the gap, but there’s a marked lag until Patel goes back to India.

The Indian scenes are triumphant, but they also raise a lot of questions. Where was Saroo better off? What happens to kids adopted outside their culture? Which one is his real home, his real mother?

I worried that Lion was garnering attention at TIFF because the audience, who skews older, might have felt good about watching something multi-cultural while still safely ensconced in a white lady’s movie. The film, however, won me over. Maybe it tries a little hard to be upbeat, but a feel-good ending is hardly a negative. Davis acquits himself well in his first directorial feature. The chapters are perhaps a bit uneven but the victory is not.

 

 

On a TIFF sidebar: While La La Land did end up receiving the People’s Choice award (Lion was the runner-up), the tickets I gave up, I Am Not Your Negro, would have had me watching the People’s Choice documentary winner. Ah well. You win some, you lose some. I can’t regret much since I was watching a great movie either way.

 

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28 thoughts on “TIFF: Lion

  1. J.

    I’m familiar with the story. Pretty remarkable, actually. I may well look out for this one (it’s a DVD / Netflix with some Kettle Chips and M&Ms type flick, huh?)

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  2. calensariel

    Having adopted and raised a daughter from India, I’m curious to see this. Kavitha was seven when we adopted her. She’s 34 now. She went to India with friends 12 years or so ago, and actually went to Bangalore where she was from. Everything in me hoped she would look for her mother. She didn’t. She said she had no desire to. I think it would be cool if she and Jesse could find her (and also her brother) and take her grandkids to see her. I’m a sucker for a happy ending. But I have so much admiration for what her mother did putting her up for adoption because she couldn’t care for her. Don’t know if I could have done that.

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    1. Jay Post author

      Not all birth parents are happy endings, unfortunately. Adoption is such a delicate and complicated situation that I think everyone’s path is different. I hope families like yours continue to show people that families are so much more dynamic than we give them credit for. We have so much room in our hearts. Thanks for being so willing to share your precious story.

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  3. Brittani

    I really like Dev Patel and I’m pretty sure everyone laughed at me when I said he had depth during Four Ways a Best Picture, so I’m ready to see him own this role and start accepting apologies. lol

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      1. reocochran

        I saw it this Spring and it was very emotional and it made me appreciate my life, filled with so much, as a child. My guy friend starting crying very soon after Saroo was separated from his brother. He and I liked the way the boy foldsup his humble cardboard bed and carries it along with him.
        The adult part for me was good in that we all seem to stall out in our lives, needing a reboot or an ambition, direction to where we need to go. . . Great film and your review was very nicely written to give a fair choice to go or not. 🙂 I say “See!” or “Go!”

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  8. calensariel

    Drollery and I finally got to see Lion last night. I get really teary at movies, but the man cried all through the thing. Knowing Kavitha (our daughter) was from the lowest caste system and could have ended up on the streets like that was quite emotional. I was glad to hear Kidman (as the adoptive mother) tell Saroo she thought his mother would want to see what a fine man he’d grown into and she wanted him to look for her. I felt vindicated because when Kavitha went to India I wanted so much for her to find her mom and brother for that very reason and everyone here thought I was crazy. Apparently I’m NOT the only adoptive mother that feels that strongly. Fortunately for Kavitha she was from Bangalore in the south not up around Calcutta. We LOVED this movie. I’ll be buying it when it comes out. I thought they did a good job showing both the good AND bad side of adoption — foreign adoptions come with their own special challenges.

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