Everybody loves a group hug. Next to the freeze-frame of Angela Lansbury grinning after she’s solved another “Murder, She Wrote” case, it’s pretty much the most satisfying ending anyone can hope for. “Lion” ends in a group hug — two, if you count the real-life embrace that follows the reenacted one just before the credits — and that’s fantastic news for the cash-strapped Weinstein Co., which needs a feel-good crowd-pleaser like nobody’s business. After “Lion” makes its millions, someone else can make a movie about how Google Earth saved the struggling indie distributor. And it can end with a shot of Harvey Weinstein, Saroo Brierley (the “Lion” himself), and director Garth Davis giving one another a big group hug at the Oscars.
But let’s get serious: The story of how 5-year-old Saroo was tragically separated from his family, wound up adopted by an Aussie couple on a completely different continent, and managed to find his birth mother 25 years later using Google Earth might be a happy one, but it’s barely meaty enough to wrap the evening news, let alone sustain a two-hour feature. While unique, Saroo’s story is somewhere between the-guy-who-found-a-lottery-scratcher-worth-fifty-bucks and the-farmer-who-prayed-for-rain-and-got-it. Such feel-good yarns are only as interesting as the person they happened to.
Fortunately for Davis, he’s got a terrific cast, chief among them the pair of charismatic actors who split the lead role: First, newcomer Sunny Pawar wins us over as 5-year-old Saroo, who’s so adorable he could set off an Indian adoption craze (which would suit the humanitarian-minded filmmakers just fine), then “Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel steps in to play the less interesting chapter, as the young man turns to the internet to research where he’s from. But the movie surrounds these two with Nicole Kidman as Saroo’s adoptive mother, Rooney Mara as his Indian food-loving girlfriend, and Priyanka Bose as the mum he left behind (her smile so lovely she could pass for Rosario Dawson’s South Asian sister). Meanwhile, Google Earth plays itself.
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Davis, a commercials director whose reel includes Toyota’s “Ninja Kittens” spot, would be a natural to boil Saroo’s story down to a tear-jerking 60 seconds (even if this material sounds like an extended promo for the one company that needs it least). In 2013, Davis collaborated with Jane Campion on the miniseries “Top of the Lake,” which suggests that he could probably also stretch Saroo’s narrative across four more hours. “Lion” marks his much-anticipated feature debut, previously pegged to be an adaptation of Gregory David Roberts’ 900-page “Shantaram,” and it’s practically the opposite of that project in every way: “Shantaram” tells of an Australian criminal at large in India, whereas “Lion” describes an Indian kid who discovers his identity Down Under.
With only the leanest wisp of a plot to guide him, screenwriter Luke Davies expands Saroo’s ordeal into a full-blown hero’s journey — like “Life of Pi,” with a flesh-and-blood “lion” in place of a CG tiger. Tagging along with his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) one night, Saroo falls asleep on a decommissioned train, which travels some 1,600 miles before letting him disembark in Calcutta. There, everyone speaks Bengali, rather than Saroo’s Hindi dialect, making it doubly intimidating for a boy so far-removed from his family. Davis ensures that we understand even less of Saroo’s surroundings than he does, which makes his first impressions of Calcutta — sleeping on cardboard, only to be awakened by a child-snatching mob, or else invited home by a sari-clad woman, who tries to pawn him off to a lecherous middleman — seem as dark and intimidating as Pinocchio’s visit to Pleasure Island. As if there was ever any doubt, Davis clearly wants his audience to appreciate how tough it is to be homeless in India, presenting us with a funeral procession and images of scavenging through garbage dumps for anything to eat.
When a benevolent stranger brings Saroo to the local police station, the boy asks for his mother, but doesn’t know enough — not her name, nor that of the village from which he came — to find his way home, and so he is delivered to an orphanage, and shortly thereafter, shipped out to Tasmania, where he’s adopted by John and Sue Brierley (played by David Wenham, who’d worked with Davis on “Top of the Lake,” and Kidman, looking just about as unglamorous as she can). Considering everything he’s been through, Saroo is an ideal child — a judgment made clear by the arrival of a second Indian boy, the deeply unhappy Mantosh, into the household.
At this point, nearly an hour into the narrative, the film skips forward 20 years, picking up with Saroo’s relocation to Melbourne, where he plans to study hotel management, but instead finds himself distracted with “dead ends” about his identity. He gets emotional support from girlfriend Lucy (Mara), who at one point looks as though she may break out into a Bollywood dance number, but when it comes to answering seemingly impossible questions, that’s what Google is for. And so, like any good stalker, Saroo pins clues to a giant bulletin board and begins crawling the web for clues to his past. Except, anyone going in to “Lion” already knows how Saroo’s predicament turns out, which makes this agonizingly suspense-free process feel as if it’s taking far longer than it should.
It would almost be more interesting to tell his story from the point of view of the Google Earth engineers — say, one who had turned suicidal after months of coding for the Silicon Valley monolith, only to discover what good he was doing in the world — or else from the perspective of Saroo’s birth mother, who didn’t have Google (or even a computer) but spent years searching for her lost son. Davies’ script is noteworthy in its sensitivity, which Davis further enhances through his elegant, deeply empathetic approach (heightened by gorgeous widescreen cinematography, much of it offering hi-res flyover shots clearly designed to evoke the heroic tool), but as a portrait of persistence, it paradoxically suggests that Saroo managed to go two decades without thinking much about his mother, only to become obsessed with finding her at just the moment the technology made that possible. And so, for the feature debut of an acclaimed commercials director, “Lion” seems awfully brazen advertising its deux ex machina right there in its logline, and though the human story is what makes it so compelling, “advertising” remains the operative word. Next up: How Siri helped you find your car keys.