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.
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 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 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.