The bizarre, true story of Saroo Brierley’s life—an odyssey from India to Australia and back—feels totemic, like something an ancient poet might sing of. As a boy, Brierley was torn from his family through a series of unfortunate coincidences and taken into a new and loving home, only to, decades later, chart his way back to a place he’d basically forgotten. But Brierley’s story is also a distinctly modern epic: a hero’s journey where Google Earth is a magical pathfinder, a tale of family that seriously explores how adoption can muddle notions of racial identity.
In adapting Brierley’s life for the new film Lion, the director Garth Davis wisely avoids adding dramatic embellishments to a narrative whose premise already sounds like awards-season material. But Brierley’s separation from his birth family, and his journey home, is almost too extraordinary to be fiction. Davis manages to keep hold of that authenticity throughout the movie, grounding its most absurd twists and turns with texture and detail, and never succumbing to the gauzy sentimentality that can pervade “human interest” yarns. Lion isn’t an especially innovative movie, but as a piece of inspirational storytelling, it’s a standout.
The film’s first (and best) act, which follows Brierley’s journey from India to Australia as a 5-year-old boy, is equal parts mesmerizing and terrifying. On an excursion with his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) from his small town to a nearby rail station, Saroo (the adorable Sunny Pawar) gets separated from him and climbs onto a train car by mistake. The train, and Saroo, is then taken almost a thousand miles across the country to Kolkata, where he doesn’t speak the local language and begins to walk the streets with other lost children. When he tells authorities the name of his hometown, he receives baffled shrugs. Eventually, he’s taken to an orphanage and flown to Tasmania, Australia, where a well-meaning couple (played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) raises him in relative comfort.
Davis, who collaborated with Jane Campion on the wonderful BBC miniseries Top of the Lake, doesn’t frame Saroo as a statistic (India has more than 30 million orphans, a vast majority of them girls). The film repeatedly cuts back to Saroo’s memories of his mother and brother, including vague, dreamlike bird’s-eye photography of his hometown. Davis wants the viewer to understand the profundity of the images lodged in Saroo’s brain, even as he gets older and the recollections grow fuzzier. The unusual, accidental circumstances of his “abandonment” help keep his hope alive. As Saroo later tells his friends, he’s a lost boy, rather than a rejected one.
As a grown-up, Saroo (played now by Dev Patel) is handsome, if brooding, and his Indian roots have been all but erased by an adolescence with the Brierleys. He has a brother, also adopted from India, who never adjusted as well to his new home and wears that trauma openly. Saroo is much more good-natured, but the cracks in his self-image start to show; when he meets a group of Indian students in college, he can’t relate to them culturally, though when they serve him jalebi, a sweet snack he remembers from his childhood, he freezes in painful recognition.
It’s not easy to dramatize the loss of cultural identity, but Davis and Patel succeed (with the help of Luke Davies’ script) by rendering Saroo’s internal conflict with subtlety. In the slower mid-section of the film, Saroo doesn’t take his frustrations out on the people around him, nor does he actively vocalize his confusion. Overall, he’s happy with his life while knowing that there’s a giant piece of the puzzle missing. Saroo’s girlfriend (Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, who does her best with an underwritten role) eventually encourages him to seek out his birth family, and he uses Google Earth to try and track down the town he’s from, though the name he remembers appears on no map.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Lion builds to an emotional conclusion; Brierley’s story, which he recounted in his autobiography A Long Way Home, received the Oscar-fodder treatment for a reason. It’s toward the end where Davis leans hardest on the “inspirational drama” tropes, but they’re well-earned by solid performances and the director’s attention to nuance. The film’s finale might feel a tad familiar, but Lion is ultimately an excellent example of its type—a resonant true story told, not with manipulative cliches, but with refreshing confidence.