2016 has seen a bit of a revamp of the biopic as a genre – Jeff Nichols’ stellar Loving finds the simple truths within the everyday moments of its subjects, while Jackie offers an unsentimental flash of the most important days of its protagonist’s life. Given these revolutionary, novel approaches, it’s sometimes hard for a more conventional film like Lion to get a seat at the table. Luckily, for its comparatively formulaic tale of an underdog triumphing against incredible odds, Lion plays its notes to surprising effect.
Based on the autobiography of Indian-Australian Saroo Brierley, Lion follows Saroo from childhood to adulthood – at the age of five (played inquisitively by the adorable Sunny Pawar), he is accidentally separated from his family in an out-of-the-way village in India. Lost, he wanders the streets and eventually finds shelter at an orphanage, which quickly finds an adoptive home for him with a well-meaning middle class Australian couple. Twenty years later, the adult Saroo (Dev Patel), now in business school, begins to wonder about the family and past that he’d long forgotten about.
At first glance, it’s hard to blame yourself for feeling like you’re seeing a repeat of Slumdog Millionaire. Dev Patel in the lead? A little, lost boy running through the streets of India? Despite these initial comparisons, what Lion has over Danny Boyle’s exploitative, mawkish gimmickry is a firm command of realism that only occasionally dips into the overtly metaphorical. When we see young Saroo surrounded by a swarm of butterflies at the beginning, or the adult Saroo imagining his young brother Muddu wherever he goes, director Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) keeps these moments grounded in the dreamlike subjectivity of memory.
The film naturally splits itself into two discrete halves, following the dangerous, lonesome plight of young Saroo before shifting into Patel’s layered portrayal of a conflicted, adult Saroo at the center of an above-average international family drama. Both versions of Saroo beautifully anchor their respective acts – Pawar with ruthless determination and preternatural grit, Patel with a deep, layered well of guilt as he’s torn between his impoverished past and privileged Western future. That Davis manages to fit such disparate acts into the exact same film is innately admirable.
Pawar’s first half is an intriguingly silent journey; as much of it is spent on his own, Davis riskily placing the weight of this film on the young newcomer’s shoulders. To his credit, Pawar is a fantastically physical actor, finding little moments of beauty in everything from his brother along the railroad tracks to mimicking a man eating soup through a restaurant window across the street. His particular strain of authenticity recalls Quvenzhane Wallis’ fearless debut in Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The cast is more than game for the understated melodrama that occupies Lion, particularly in the film’s talkier second half. Patel’s adult struggle could have easily been mined for poor-me middle class angst, but Davis and his crew manage to make it feel immediate and real. Most intriguing is his newfound interest in his biological family, and how they remind him of the amenities he enjoys in Australia. “We swan about in our privileged lives,” he says mournfully to Lucy (Rooney Mara). “It makes me sick.” It’s nice to see Patel given such a meaty leading role, and it’s a reminder of what kind of force he can bring to the screen.
His dynamic with his adoptive family is also compelling, including his saintly mother Sue (a dynamically unglamorous Nicole Kidman, adorned with the real figure’s red perm) and father John (David Wenham). Saroo’s adoptive parents are remarkable in their unassuming goodness, even when it causes them emotional grief. This often takes the form of their other adoptive Indian child, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), a frustrated young man struggling with autistic fits and drug addiction. Saroo’s resentment toward Mantosh twists the knife further – “I hate what he’s done to you,” he says to the weakening Sue after one of Mantosh’s tenser outbursts.
When the film gets down to business and showcases the main gimmick around Saroo’s real-life story (using Google Earth to track down the village where he grew up, as he can’t remember the correct name), Lion admittedly loses a little of its momentum. Even so, Davis injects the proceedings with a fascinating series of intercuts between the grainy, 2010-era Google Maps and Saroo’s rapidly-clearing memories of dust-covered village streets, broken-down homes, and swirling mountain ranges. It’s an interesting way to depict the intersection of memory and geography, and the ways in which little landmarks and moments can trigger vivid memories from the past.
To be clear, there are no surprises to be found in Lion’s conventional, often formulaic narrative. After all, if he didn’t find his family again, we wouldn’t have heard of Saroo’s story in the first place, right? Even knowing this ahead of time, the actual moment when Saroo finds his village again – Patel curiously walking through the same streets we saw Pawar scuttle through just ninety minutes before – it’s haunting and more than a little bit cathartic.
If you’re looking for a reinvention of the biopic formula, there are plenty of films this season to set you up. If you think there’s still room for the traditional ‘true-story’ drama, Lion proves these stories still have a little life left in them.