Lion is one true story but two very different movies. The better one comes first. In late-’80s Central India, a 5-year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) gets separated from his older brother. He boards an empty train and is carried away, ending up in Kolkata, where no one speaks his language. Director Garth Davis films Saroo’s odyssey in long shots, over bridges, along train tracks, and by traffic-clogged streets. It’s like the whole world was created just to pass him by. Pawar is quite a discovery, with watchful eyes that can look fearful and strong all at once, and midway through Lion, he pretty much disappears. The film leaps forward two decades, to Australia, where grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) has been raised by adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).
From here, the film becomes less special, stocked with conventional characters and moments. Rooney Mara is The Girlfriend, a passive role played impassively. Kidman gets the film’s Big Speech, but is underutilized until then. Complex ideas about race, identity, and class are brought up, then forgotten. Saroo mournfully clicks through Google Earth, while tantalizing, overused flashbacks remind you how good this movie used to be. Lion sticks the landing, however. Where Saroo goes and what he finds there left me in tears, but you feel that a complicated true story has been airbrushed into a postmodern legend. As the story of a boy from one country becoming a man in another and trying to find a home in two hemispheres, Lion is a celebration of global citizenship — or, given the year we’ve had, a eulogy. B