A subtle roar: ‘Lion’ explores a complicated true story

Sunny Pawar is young Saroo in Lion.
Mike D'Angelo

Three stars

Lion Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman. Directed by Garth Davis. Rated PG-13. Opens Sunday in select theaters.

In 1986, a 5-year-old Indian boy named Saroo fell asleep on a decommissioned railway car and suddenly found himself in Calcutta, nearly 1,000 miles from home, unable to provide enough information for authorities to locate his family. Lion tells the remarkable story of his journey back, which took more than 25 years. Adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), Saroo, played as a boy by Sunny Pawar, grows up to become the broodingly handsome Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire); his early life in India long forgotten, he pursues a career in hotel management and gets romantically involved with a supportive classmate (Rooney Mara). Once a key memory gets jarred, however, Saroo becomes obsessed with finding his real mother, if only to let her know that he’s alive. Using the newly launched Google Earth, he attempts to retrace the train ride he inadvertently took so many years ago.

Lion’s fundamentally chronological structure makes for a somewhat sluggish initial half hour or so; it would likely have been more effective to open with Saroo in adulthood and flash back to his childhood throughout (which happens anyway). Once Patel shows up to kick off Saroo’s seemingly impossible quest, however, only the truly hard-hearted will remain unmoved. The film is spikier than you might expect, based on the synopsis; there’s a joyful reunion, but it’s tinged with genuine sorrow and regret.

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