Lion (2016)

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“I have to go home. I am lost.”

Back in 2010 I went on a mission trip to Nicaragua, joining my Mother’s childhood best friend Sue and the rest of her church group to bring aid to The Mustard Seed Communities in the region. No experience has transformed me more as a person or given my mind as much insight into the universality of life as that awakening week. Living beside abandoned children, typically because of their physical or mental handicaps. Witnessing the strict dichotomy of prosperous wealth and barren poverty side by side, often within yards of one another. And visiting La Chureca, a functioning “City of Trash” with a school, a church, and homes built from scraps located in the largest garbage dump in Central America. One look at this picture I took is all you need to know about the place. And that’s because Lion reminded me that happiness doesn’t need rich land or soil to take root; it only requires love and hope.

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Little in stature but big in heart, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives with his family in an impoverished Indian village. Mum (Priyanka Bose) is a laborer, carrying the weight of rocks for a living and the even greater load of responsibility caring for her children. Saroo’s strongest bond is that of brotherhood, a shadow standing just above waist-high on his big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). Stealing coal to buy powdered milk, doing odds and ends to help Mum. They’re inseparable only until they are. Guddu works late at night, Saroo tags along, falling asleep on a train station bench. He wakes up alone, searches for Guddu on a decommissioned railcar, and falls asleep once more. Next stop: Calcutta, some 1,600 kilometers from home.

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As a son seated next to my mother, Lion’s opening act was a hard watch. Here we have this little boy, preyed upon by child traffickers and narrowly escaping in multiple instances, always having the wherewithal and street smarts to sniff out the wolves hounding at his heels. But then you see the reverse angle – a mother afraid she’s lost her son forever – and you get a different vantage point. In America, losing a child in a Target is panic inducing enough. By comparison, Lion’s dramatic stakes are shattering. Despite all odds though, Saroo makes it. He’s taken in by Australians Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), they adopt another boy named Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), and as it is with all families, things are hard. They succeed as much as they struggle.

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Luke Davies has scripted a wonder of a story, delicate with its heartstrings and well aware of its occasional shorthanded nature. The film’s middle loses steam as it follows a grown Saroo (Dev Patel) and his college love Lucy (Rooney Mara). The drop-off is necessary though, if only to remind us of what truly matters to our protagonist. Saroo uses Google Earth (in less of an advertisement and more of an appreciation for our information age) to search for his home, he fails over and over, questions where he actually belongs. He’s in a tailspin. Lucy can’t take his isolation, looking into a hopeless screen and charting the course like a man lost at sea. Lion forsakes focus in this section, but new director Garth Davis holds us tight, allowing his performers to either forcefully or subtly draw us back in, at bay for the gut punch of a revelation we know is to come but unsure of its timing. Patel’s astounding, Kidman is a rock, and newcomer Sunny Pawar will give you a toothache. Davis packs their performances and the powerful message like a brown bagged school lunch. Soggy sandwich, warm string cheese, no plastic spoon for the pudding. Yet Lion’s name is written on the bag in the sort of unmistakably warm handwriting expected of a mother to her child. What’s inside is flawed, the packaging easily tearing at the corners, but it’s crimped and sealed with a kiss and with care. I wish more movies deservedly moved their audiences as much as this one does.

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When words are largely lost in translation, you’re given the rare opportunity to learn invaluable lessons. First is the importance of touch; to hug, to interlace fingers, and to hold someone’s head against your own. Second is the necessity of eye contact; to look into a person is to completely render yourself over to empathy. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the expendability of conversation; touch and eye contact are usually enough. But in retrospect, and with the help of this filmI’ve come to a reevaluation sure to satisfy a larger audience. A certain tongue may not make sense to every ear, but the language of love is universal. It can be spoken, translated, understood, and felt without even the faintest whisper or sound. The movie knows this. It’s imperfect and could have been better in spots, but it made me miss my children in Nicaragua, leaving me wondering if they’re safe, well, and warm. Feeling guilty and selfish that I have not gone back. Determined to return to them. I loved those kids, immediately and unconditionally, and after two hours, I felt the same way towards Lion. What a deeply humanistic picture.

“There are no more dead ends.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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