Editor’s Note: Possible spoilers for those who don’t know the story.
In one of the founding myths of Greek mythology, humans had two faces, and four legs and four arms. So great was the strength of these humans that the gods lived in constant fear of being overthrown. Eventually, they resorted to splitting humans in half, and ever since, people have been crossing oceans, scaling mountains, trekking across limitless desserts, searching for what what went missing, calling it love, and asking of all the people in the world, how do find just one?
Lion, opening on Christmas Day, reminded me of this Greek myth, although its love is split between a man (Dev Patel) and his mother. Told in sequential order, Lion begins with a five-year old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) bragging about his strength, hauling mounds of coal from trains. His older brother (Abishek Barate) leaves their hometown of Ganesh Talai in search of temporary work, and Saroo begs to accompany him, leaving behind a beautiful, beloved mother and baby sister. Saroo is much too young for the journey and when he falls asleep, he is separated from his brother and taken 1,600 kilometers away to Calcutta. Without knowing a phone number, address or even the name of his hometown, Saroo wanders the city, half the height of menacing child smugglers, haunted by the sounds of distant trains. Once he is placed in orphanage alongside other forgotten red-eyed children however, Saroo is rescued by a caseworker who finds a childless couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) to adopt him. Australia’s bountiful beaches and gentle wake beckon for Saroo, a paradise almost unimaginable in his past life.
Flash forward twenty years later and Saroo is all grown up, entering a hotel management graduate program, and falling in love with a charming American (Rooney Mara). But he can’t let go of a past that pulls at him from his subconscious. Saroo may speak perfect English now and root for Australia’s cricket team, but there is a beckoning curiosity to discover what came before, to find the mother he left behind in India. So Saroo, with the help of a giant map of train stations and the eye in the sky of Google Earth searches day and night and finally succeeds. The promised payoff comes to fruition as Saroo weaves through the marveling crowds to hug his mother (Rohini Kargaiya). A mother who we learn stayed put for twenty years in the same forgotten town in an act of stubborn love and belief. By the time the Lion ends, with the real Saroo Brierely appearing on screen, the mother and son are split people united again. They’ve earned a good cry.
Before Lion, Sarro Brierely’s story was picked up by Google for a 2013 advertisement. That doesn’t surprise me because Lion reflects a fascinating concept in search of an actual movie. I doubt the fault lies with director Garth Davis, whose eye for detail in the film’s first hour is particularly strong. His camera hovers over the lost children of India, those that Katherine Boo say live “behind the beautiful forevers” in her 2013 book of the same title. The clacking of worn out shoes and the roar of the trains are the sounds of Davis’ India. It’s not quite the neo-realism of the Dardenne Brothers, but it holds your attention all the same.
The film’s second half is where Lion runs into trouble, turning in all directions at once. The screenwriter, Luke Davies, saddles Saroo’s attempts to find his Indian home with a host of weak subplots. Saroo has another brother, Mantosh, who has become a drug addict with anger issues. Mantosh upsets his parents frequently, turning Lion towards the family melodrama. Saroo worries that his search for his birth family will upset his mother by somehow suggesting that he is not grateful for being adopted. What could be an intricate exploration of the ethics and obligations of adoption instead gets boiled down to one explosive scene, where Kidman tells Saroo through her tears that “we could have had children [but] we choose not to.” In what is probably the most powerful moment in the movie, her character explains: “We both felt the world had more than enough people in it already…But to take a child who’s suffering – like you boys were – and to give him a chance in the world. Well, then. Now there’s something.” One only wonders what a movie from her perspective instead of Saroo’s would have looked like.
The biggest disappointment of Lion is that it can’t even get the big-picture, Thomas Friedman-esque themes of globalization and multiculturalism right. While most of us are not like Saroo in the sense that we are searching for a mother we can barely remember, we are all torn between different worlds. It’s common to the point of banality to have families split between Mexico and Texas or Florida or Cuba or just about any country in European Union, which easily facilitates the free travel of people. Lion is a movie that grapples with physical geography but not human geography. We get no real sense of what being Indian might mean to Saroo or whether his home has any pull independent of his childhood memories. The making of a fascinating post-colonial character in Saroo is buried within Lion. Combine his search for home with his career (global hotel management) and his girlfriend (Lucy, torn between her home of New York and Australia) and you have a real story of cosmopolitanism that could break new ground.
In perhaps the film’s most memorable visual moment, Saroo traces his fingers over the palm of Lucy’s (or Mara’s) hand in bed. The lines of Lucy’s palm transform into the mimetic image of India’s ragged infrastructure, the roads, rivers and train tracks sprawling across the land, viewed from the atmospheric heights of Google Earth. Davis’ clever fade struck me as a visual adaptation of the beautiful words uttered by Almasy in closing portion of Michael Ondaatje’s book The English Patient: “I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.”
Lion is a movie that is too often a story of a man instead of a community, of a single place instead of a country. Covering familiar ground, Lion undoubtedly delivers on its emotional promises. Yet if we already know where a film will take us, is there any need for vast maps like those on Saroo’s living room wall? Find me something else, a place I haven’t seen before. Show me the other half of the world, the one we go to the movies looking for.