The India of “Lion” is something out of a horror film. Empty trains race through the landscape, seemingly unattended by any living person. Homeless children are abducted by strange men in the night, never to be seen again. Even well-intentioned kindness leads to danger (and it’s not all well-intentioned).
It may not pass muster with the country’s tourism ministry, but Garth Davis’ fact-based drama (opening Christmas Day) sets a powerful tone as it follows 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) after he is accidentally separated from his family. It’s too bad that tone isn’t sustained through the rest of the movie.
Little Saroo knows how to survive, and does so with a silent resilience as he goes from his home in western India to the mean streets of Kolkata, then on to an adoptive family in Australia. Saroo isn’t convinced that the authorities have done much to reconnect him with his mother and siblings, but he goes along and accepts his fate. It’s not like he has a choice.
Landing in a clean, middle-class Tasmanian suburb improves Saroo’s life, but it doesn’t do much for the movie. Nicole Kidman and David Wenham are very good as his kindhearted new parents, but they don’t have much to do, even after the arrival of another, much more troubled child stirs up the family’s happiness. After taking his time in the first act, Davis rushes through Saroo’s arrival, skipping ahead 20 years before anyone (audience included) has a chance to adjust to these surroundings.
“Lion” slows down again as a now-grown Saroo (Dev Patel) decides to search for his birth family. Luke Davies’ script (based on Saroo Brierley’s memoir, “A Long Way Home”) loses its early focus, becoming as scattered as its lead character’s behavior.
Saroo seems to have little interest in his roots until he sees a plate of pastries at an Indian-born friend’s house, which triggers memories of his brother. He opens up to his friends and new girlfriend (Rooney Mara), then says he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.
Instead of talking, he obsesses privately, spending hours online looking for clues as he becomes ever more miserable. It’s an abrupt personality shift, and one that the film does nothing to prepare viewers for. As talented as Patel is, he simply isn’t convincing as a grown-up version of the little boy we got to know so well before. It’s not just a matter of physical resemblance, either. Pawar is a nearly silent, incredibly expressive child with real-world wisdom behind his eyes. Patel is a talkative, energetic, fairly typical 20-something.
How did Saroo evolve from one version to the other? Some transitional scenes would have helped, maybe glimpses of him as an older child or teen, to give some context to his actions (see Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” for a lesson on how to pull this off). Instead “Lion” gets so far ahead of itself, it becomes a different — and less interesting — movie.
It pulls together near the end, as Saroo gets closer to his goal and the script gets coherent again. Saroo’s story is genuinely inspiring, and both his families deserve great respect. The filmmakers even include a message at the end about programs to help street kids. The horror show becomes a message of hope, and it’s worth a lackluster middle act to find it.
Find more of Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:00.