I first heard about Saroo Brierley’s story on Australia’s 60 Minutes last year. The details are fuzzy, but I was amazed at his drive to find his family and sobbed for the utter desperation he must’ve felt searching for them, knowing they’re out there and only having memories 25 years old to rely on for his search.
I’ve been looking forward to this movie since December, counting down the days and accidentally tweeting the movie’s account from my work account – which big no-no. And when I finally got to see it, it didn’t disappoint. I sobbed almost has hard as I did when I saw his 60 Minutes report.
The story begins in India, and stays with a young Saroo for most of the first hour there. Sunny Pawar plays the younger Saroo, and he’s been blessed with the most angelic, expressive face for such a young kid. I don’t know how the director managed to direct him given the language barriers – but he did, and it’s a heart wrenching performance as a result.
His family there is close – his mother, sister Shekila and big brother Guddu. They live in a small village, where his mother breaks down rocks in a quarry and the children steal coal from trains to sell and buy milk. Priyanka Bose who plays their mother, much like the young Sunny, has a face that broadcasts everything to the camera and breaks your heart as a result.
Saroo adores Guddu, following him everywhere and the feeling is mutual. Guddu is burdened by the knowledge that he needs to figure out ways for his family to survive and he tries his best, and that is how he loses Saroo – the young boy insists on going with him to night work, falling asleep on the train and slowing Guddu down. Leaving him on a bench to sleep Guddu promises a sleepy Saroo that he’ll be back in a few minutes, but by the time he is, Saroo is gone, locked onto a train that travels for days to Calcutta, where Saroo doesn’t speak the language.
He exists as best he can, finding food where he can and sleeping under a bridge until someone takes him to the police, and then an orphanage. Which is harsh in its own way. From there, he’s adopted to Australia and the Brierleys, which is when the movie skips 25 years forward.
I’ve read that Dev Patel worked hard to get this role, physically transforming himself so that the lanky young man from earlier in his career is a distant memory. Saroo loves the Brierleys but that doesn’t damper his memories or the ache for his mother and his family in India. A chance dinner meeting gives him the idea to use this new-fangled thing called Google Earth to find his village, coupled with train speeds and a whole lot of math I don’t understand.
Real life can’t be unfortunate, but here goes: there’s a girlfriend in the movie, played by Rooney Mara, who is the only person that knows what he’s doing. His family doesn’t. Unfortunately there’s not enough chemistry there to make that relationship strong enough for us to fear for them, or worry with her at what he’s doing with himself. As it turns out, the girlfriend just sort of fades away next to the emotion of the rest of the movie.I was surprised so little of this involved his parents, though I did eventually understand his desire not to hurt them.
He underestimated them of course, and Nicole Kidman, especially emotes up a storm, making up for the lacklustre girlfriend’s presence in the film. I get why she got the Oscar nomination. And to the real Brierleys: who adopted Saroo and another young boy, because they wanted to help children who were in need of a home, I wish the world had more people like them in it – people who took the good and the hard parts of adoption and found a way to make it work for them and built a family. I wish the Australian government made adoption easier, but that’s another story.
I was a goner by the time the reunion happened, and watching Saroo find out his brother that he’d longed for, that’d he’d imagined and had visions about had passed away.
Lion is real, heartfelt and God, take your tissues.