Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives in an impoverished area of India. One night, he accompanies his older brother to go to work, and inadvertently falls asleep on an empty train. He wakes up with the train moving far away from home, and even when he gets off, he’s just barely able to survive on the streets. Saroo is eventually adopted by a couple in Australia, where he makes a new life for himself. As an adult, though, Saroo (Dev Patel) begins to wonder where he came from, and thanks to Google Earth, begins to search for his first home.
Lion is certainly the kind of film that feels like awards bait on the surface. It’s based on a true story and tackles a touching topic. What makes Lion work, though, is how it’s structured. In a lesser film, young Saroo’s travels would take 15-20 minutes, and we’d spend the rest of the film with adult Saroo. Instead, the periods are more evenly split. None of the cast that’s being credited on the posters appear until near the middle of the film, and until that point, we’re really just following young Saroo as he navigates this world. And it should be noted, the film touches on some very real, very harrowing challenges. At several points, it’s easy to see where if it wasn’t for Saroo’s quick thinking, he’d be gone forever. The film’s second half is a bit less compelling by comparison, but it addresses some interesting issues regarding adoption. Saroo has trouble not only figuring out where to possibly look for his tiny village, but how to relay this information to his adopted parents, who he genuinely loves and who adore him.
The conclusion of the film is touching, but what makes it work (aside from being true) is that it feels earned. Not everything works out the way he wants, but Saroo is able to come to peace with his past. It’s a well-deserved ending for a film that could have been simply emotionally manipulative. Thankfully, Lion is much more than that.