A young boy from impoverished India falls asleep on a train, travelling thousands of miles from home. At only five years old, he is admitted into the streets, into an orphanage, and finally into the arms of loving, adoptive Aussie parents. But his search for home twenty years later is just beginning.
Real-life media sensation Saroo Brierley released his story in a book aptly titled A Long Way Home, which translates into the 2016 film, Lion. And it deserves the Oscar-nominated praise: director Garth Davis crafts an authentic, commanding tale of a memoir with beautiful cinematography, rich sensitivity, and one beautiful India. We spend the first half of the film in that country when Saroo is but a boy; a land that is home, and boasts a different color palette than the nautical whites-and-blues Australia. It’s a wonderfully made film, and feels authentic, with Indian actors and actresses when the story calls.
And it wouldn’t be the same without the two leads, a younger and older Saroo played by Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel, respectively. Pawar, a prolific child actor likely too cute for his own good, made a splash at the 2016 Oscars with his genuine, heartfelt performance that exceeds his age. And Patel is exceptional, extraordinary, in a story that can only be described as one well worth telling. He is also too beautiful for his own good, portraying Saroo in his twenties, with a longing for home he can find in memory and not maps, until he discovers the then revolutionary new technology of Google Earth. His haunting is real: we see the mother he can only remember loving, an older brother forever calling his name. Patel’s sensitivity as an actor makes his character deeply likable, impossible to stop watching.
That energy reflects strangely similarly, but also completely differently in Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, whom Saroo falls in love with after college. For the record, the sequence in which they fall in love is one of the sweetest. They’re adorable, dorky around one another, but also kinetic, and understand each other even when Saroo’s obsession of a search strains their relationship to a thread. Nicole Kidman plays Saroo’s adoptive mother, Sue Brierley, fierce and empathetic and kind. The theme of family, blood or not, is ever present in the film, and Lion doesn’t hesitate to dip into the vivid horror children face coming from orphanages, even the few that are adopted and taken into safe homes. Saroo’s younger adoptive brother, Mantosh, grows up to be a tormented figure, self-harming and abusive of substances, but also rude, which Saroo loses patience over, clean, upstanding Saroo, who hates Mantosh for burdening their family and mother. Yet Saroo himself can’t find it in him to tell her about his search for home, which begins to take over his life.
The ending, extraordinarily, is a happy one, as Saroo finds his village by chance. Exhausted and defeated, he scrolls blindly one day on the map, and discovers it farther than he ever imagined. Anyone who’s used Google Earth is familiar with how much detail there’s packed in the grainy satellite pictures; it’s all too easy to get lost, let alone comb the land for a little known rural village. But Saroo finds home, and his revelation is ours. You feel the same electric shock go through your body as the cursor hovers over the dot on the map. Saroo is able to reunite with his birth mother, who had never left their village all these years, always hoping he would return, and the emotional payoff is tremendous. The film resonates with anyone on so many levels, even if it is an experience few of us will ever have. In the end, after watching the last scene, we watch a recording of the same scene with the real Saroo, reuniting with his real mother. It’s the same beautiful, bittersweet celebration. During the credits, we also learn what he’s discovered since. Including the fact that he had been mispronouncing his name his whole life. It was actually Sheru, or lion.