There are two ways to view “Lion.” One is as a heart-warming tale of love beyond boundaries and the incandescent pull of home. The more cynical view is that it’s a two-hour advertisement for the wonders of Google Earth.
Let’s not be cynical, shall we? Let’s just enjoy this poignant and true story of a man who became separated from his family in India at age 5, was adopted by an Australia couple and then tracked down his family 25 years after going missing.
“Lion “ is really two beautifully-shot films — the tenacious story of 5-year-old Saroo Brierley lost hundreds of miles in eastern India and the less dramatic, and slightly forced, story of that same boy all grown up looking for answers about his past.
Dev Patel, of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame, proves he’s a talented, striking leading man, but even he would admit he’s delightfully overshadowed by newcomer Sunny Pawar, who plays his 5-year-old self with irrepressible sweetness. “I can lift anything,” he says at one point, and proves it by lifting this film.
Luke Davies’ screenplay, adapted from Brierley’s memoir “A Long Way Home,” starts in 1986 with the younger Saroo tagging along with his older brother to scrounge for work. He then falls asleep on a decommissioned train that travels some 1,600 kilometers to Calcutta.
Lost, hungry and scared, the boy isn’t even able to seek help since he speaks only Hindi in an area where Bengali is the common language. He scrounges for food, turns a piece of cardboard into a bed and narrowly escapes child abductors before being taken to an orphanage that resembles a prison. It’s a grim journey in which few adults are good. The camera doesn’t shy away from staring at gritty places and forgotten people.
Salvation comes in the form of Nicole Kidman in a truly appalling ‘80s wig. She and David Wenham play an Aussie couple who adopt young Saroo and Kidman turns in a very unglamorous, quiet and meditative performance.
Director Garth Davis has got us in the palm of his hand at this point, with Saroo wide-eyed at encountering a plane and a refrigerator for the first time. But the second half of the film slackens somewhat as Patel takes over 25 years later.
He’s great as a brooding, haunted man but he has less to work with. If the first half was a compelling, physical journey, the second is one taken solely inside the mind and the film degenerates into long moments showing Saroo’s solitary wanderings and sleeplessness. The dense crowds of harsh, urban India give way to the empty, lush expanses of Tasmania.
The adult Saroo seems unmoored from his Indian roots until — like Marcel Proust’s madeleine — he encounters a fried cake called a jalebi that triggers childhood memories. Someone helpfully suggests he look at Google Earth — yes, it’s actually written into the script. (The company’s logo also appears on the screen multiple times, on the movie poster and Google is thanked in the end credits. This is product placement on par with Reese’s Pieces in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”)
Soon, Saroo is pushing away his girlfriend (a very bad idea since it’s the marvelous Rooney Mara) and studying satellite images from India by a certain internet company, tracing train tracks from a laptop. He has no idea where he came from and the film nicely uses flashbacks to show partial memories flooding back.
A breakthrough gets him on the right track and soon he’s back on a plane, heading to his former home and a bittersweet finale with the people he left behind. It’s all thanks to love, tenaciousness and, of course, the good folks at Google.
“Lion,” a Weinstein Company release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic material and some sensuality.” MPAA definition of PG-13: Parental guidance suggested, with some material may not be suitable for children. Running time: 119 minutes.
Mark Kennedy, AP Entertainment Writer