A real-life fairy tale several times over, “Lion” is blessed with a Ripley’s Believe It or Not story line that would warm the heart of a stone. But as the Brothers Grimm knew, fairy tales present obstacles along with blessings, and that is the case here as well.
The problem “Lion” has to deal with is that, despite stars as strong as Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara, it’s impossible to get people into theaters without acknowledging the story’s irresistible specifics. And once you reveal the conclusion, how are you going to keep audiences entertained until the narrative gets there?
As directed by Australia’s Garth Davis in his feature debut and written by Luke Davies based on the memoir “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley, “Lion” has adopted a canny strategy to keep viewers interested that works well at times and not so well at others.
Brierley currently lives in Hobart, Tasmania, and his story, which was a media sensation at home, is a singular one: A native of India who got profoundly lost and separated from his family as a 5-year-old child, he was adopted by an Australian couple but was able, a quarter of a century later, to use Google Earth to find and reunite with his birth mother.
What “Lion” perhaps inevitably focuses on is not so much the search itself, which involved extended and not especially photogenic computer use, but the different kinds of jeopardy Saroo faced as both a child and a man.
As a boy, Saroo’s difficulties are inflicted on him by an unfeeling, not to say hostile world and their impact on us, as is usually the case with child-in-jeopardy scenarios, is considerable.
As an adult, though well-played by Patel (bulked up from “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”), Saroo’s wounds are almost all self-inflicted, and their intensity comes off as less convincing and more contrived than his childhood woes.
Part of the reason for that is that, paradoxically, filmmaker Davis, a top international commercial director who co-directed the “Top of the Lake” series with Jane Campion, seems more at home visually in India than in Australia.
Davis is also helped immeasurably by the casting of young Sunny Pawar as the boy Saroo. A neophyte as an actor, this tiny, self-possessed performer is electric, using his expressive eyes to convey emotions that are unmistakable but still restrained.
We meet Saroo near Khandwa in western India where he is hanging out with his beloved older brother Guddu (Abhishe Bharate, another fine newcomer), doing what they can to relieve the dire poverty of their single-parent family.
When Guddu heads off on a search for work that will take him away for days, Saroo insists he is old enough to help and Guddu reluctantly agrees to take him along. But when their train stops at a town called Burhanpur, Saroo can’t stay awake and Guddu lets him sleep on a bench and tells him he will return.
Suddenly it is hours later, the station is deserted, and Guddu is nowhere to be found. A frightened Saroo makes a fateful decision to go into an empty train to continue resting (“the empty wooden bench seats were more comfortable and felt safer than the quiet station,” he writes in his book), a choice that will forever change his life.
For while Saroo is sleeping, the train takes off and does not open its doors until perhaps 18 hours later in the vast metropolis of Kolkata, some 1,000 miles to the east. Not only is young Saroo a disoriented Hindi speaker in a Bengali city, he doesn’t know the exact name of the city he is from.
This part of “Lion” has Saroo under continual threat from all manner of potential urban snares and dangers before he ends up in an orphanage that offers perils of its own. It is, helped by Greig Fraser’s dramatic cinematography, the film’s strongest section.
His family unfindable given the meager information he can provide, Saroo is adopted out of the orphanage by the loving Australian couple Sue and John Brierley (Kidman and fellow Australian stalwart David Wenham). Except for difficulties with another Indian boy adopted a year later, his life in Tasmania is a pleasure compared with what has come before.
Picked up attending hotel management school in Canberra, Saroo’s adult life seems equally even-keeled. He even acquires a warm, supportive girlfriend named Lucy (Rooney Mara, not usually cast in these kinds of parts) and feels no real connection to his Indian past.
When this changes for Saroo, it changes with a vengeance. Talking to Indian fellow students and hearing about the new computer tool known as Google Earth, he becomes obsessed with finding out where he came from to a degree that, not completely convincingly, threatens to ruin his life.
But once “Lion’s” can’t-miss conclusion hovers into view, the film’s periodic over-dramatization matters less. A story like this is finally impossible to mess up, and pretending otherwise is beside the point.
Rating: PG-13, for thematic material and some sensuality
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles