Take Google Earth software, add the soul-searching schmaltz of Eat, Pray, Love (2010), and you have Lion, the true story of a man searching for his biological family.
The facts behind the movie, however, are unarguably fascinating. Saroo Brierley (né Khan) was just 5 years old when he followed his older brother Guddu to a train station one night to make some money for their single mother, Ammi. The two boys got separated and Saroo, looking for his brother, mistakenly got onto a train that traveled nearly 1,000 miles to Kolkata before he could disembark. His brother Guddu met a worse fate: he was struck and killed by a train that same night.
Because Saroo could not speak Bengali and did not know the correct name of his hometown, he was placed in an orphanage from which he was eventually adopted by an Australian couple.
The first hour of Lion depicts this part of the story perfectly. Actor Sunny Pawar, as the young Saroo, is adorable yet authentic. His story is filled with tension and pathos, presented in intimate, soft images.
The second hour of Lion comes to a grinding halt because Saroo tracked down his biological mother not through a grueling, visually stunning trek, but a Google Earth search. We may be tethered to our phones and laptops in reality, but no one wants to see that onscreen.
To add more drama, screenwriter Luke Davies invented some tension between adult Saroo (Dev Patel) and his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) and between Saroo and his adopted family. Both subplots feel forced and hollow. Supposedly Saroo’s relationship with Lucy suffers because of his search, an obsession which also gets him fired from a job we never hear about. His search also makes him withdraw from his beloved adopted family of 20 years. Saroo may have indeed become sullen as his search went fruitless for so long, but because we meet him again just before he begins his search, we have no knowledge of him as an adult. Therefore, it’s hard to understand his reactions, let alone feel invested in his journey.
The ending of the film in which Saroo finds his mother partially redeems Lion, but the 60 Minutes piece on Saroo Brierley was just as moving as its two-hour adaptation. Perhaps the story isn’t feature-length material, but, then again, it may just need to find its home in a better screenplay and director.