An exceptionally structured debut feature from Australian television veteran Garth Davis, the uplifting and remarkably subtle Lion takes bold chances with its story of one man’s search for his true identity.
As a child in 1986, Saroo Khan (played by Sunny Pawar as a tyke and Dev Patel as an adult) gets lost and abandoned at a train station, separating him from the his mother and brother. After accidentally boarding a train about to leave the station, he travels alone for two days across the country where he’s seen as an orphan at his final destination because he speaks Hindu and not Bengali. After a year passes in an orphanage and his mother can’t be located, he’s sent to Tasmania to live with a pair of loving, adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). As an adult, Saroo appreciates his new life, but still feels like a lost boy. Through use of Google Earth, research of train patterns, and calculating how fast he would have travelled on that fateful day during his childhood, Saroo begins a lengthy, years long quest to find where he came from, while nagging questions about his family begin to eat away at him and threaten to destroy his otherwise healthy relationship with his supportive American girlfriend (Rooney Mara).
It’s a story divided into two parts, with Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies spending a lot of the first hour alongside Pawar as young Saroo tries to navigate the dangerous life of a child on the streets of India. It’s harrowing, wrenching stuff that informs the rest of the film before the remarkable child actor hands things off to Patel.
When the story shifts to 2008 and adult Saroo’s quest for closure, Patel commands the screen and delivers the best performance of his career. People often talk about actors who “disappear into their roles,” but Patel’s performance is like watching a man disappear. His existential and melancholic malaise grows, and he answers the film’s ultimate questions about privilege through his performance.