Many films capture the feeling of loneliness with poetic and often abstract imagery, but few show it as anything but a means to an end. Yes, the feeling of abandonment is a frustrating circumstance, and one that creates complex emotional responses. In director Garth Davis' Lion, he sets out to tell one story of persistence causing loneliness to end on a happy note. The story may play the conventional fields, but predictability isn't the point. Lion is a story of hope that asks us, even without saying, to have faith in the impossible - for it is where the greatest challenges lie. With a phenomenal performance by Dev Patel, this is a film that not only captures the heartbreaking loneliness in lengthy detail, but also the ability to cope and live a normal life within the situation. It may not be the most groundbreaking film, but it may be among the year's most heartwarming, innovative experiences.
Despite having opening credits, many will be forgiven for thinking that they walked into the wrong movie, as the advertisements don't care for much of the first hour. The story follows Saroo's journey from a young boy (played by Sunny Pawar) in a small India village to becoming an orphan adopted by John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierly (Nicole Kidman) in Australia. It is a credit to the film that it paints the tragic, life-changing moment as merely an impulsive accident. There's a chance of fate that Saroo could've slept peacefully on the seemingly abandoned train without being driven hundreds of miles from home. Instead, he winds up unable to escape, feeling the pressure of being alone as he passes different counties and faces. He may look like them, but even the simple language barrier proves just how isolated he will be for quite awhile.
The film relies heavily on Pawar's performance, of whom the second half wouldn't work without. Davis expertly leaves the camera long enough on Saroo's face as he screams, pleading for that one ounce of familiarity. It becomes painful as he enters a system full of abandoned children, knowing very well that he doesn't belong there. Nobody could understand his isolation and unfortunate mistake. It's the anxiety that fuels his journey, eventually becoming a deeper metaphor beyond that of the textual adopted child story on display. His journey isn't just for happiness, but for a piece of family that gave him hope as a child. Even as an adult (played by Patel), Saroo feels conflicted. It isn't because he hates his new life, but that so much of his past is shrouded in mystery, largely thanks to his developing memory pushing out seemingly minor details. As he searches for answers through Google Maps, he realizes just how hard the road ahead will be.
The best piece of acting that Patel gives to the film is his insular struggles. He is by no means a depressing character, though his frustrations are always on display. As he sets up maps in his apartment to figure out where in India his family would be, he looks with hope in his eyes that the next second will have the revelation that solves decades of conflict. Even then, the film does an excellent job of not criminalizing his new family, including a brother whose path includes self-destruction, also from an unfortunate adoption. His adopted mother cares, but there's clearly a conflict within Saroo not to hate her while also separating himself far enough to feel comfortable to do something impossible. He needs to be on his own to find his family.
As mentioned, the ending is incredibly obvious. However, Davis creates a fascinating character in Saroo that, over two hours, becomes far more compelling than one could initially expect. His personal struggles become understood, even creating something more universal. His loneliness isn't played as a taboo, instead being fulfilled by nuanced mood swings that provide clues to his past. Even if the story has no overt religious tones, there's a certain subtext about faith that is undeniable. There is belief that persistence will pay off, and that doing good will reward those involved. Merely being good to each other is enough to make someone's life better, and it is depicted throughout both halves of the movie in different ways. While some aren't accepted, they all lead to the conclusion, which would seem like a Hollywood ending if it wasn't true - a fact made clearer by archival footage playing over the credits that shows Saroo's journey.
Lion is a powerful film about hope. It manages to find joy in moments of loneliness without exploiting the misery. It's a film not undermined by conventions, but instead uses them to elevate the story to new philosophical places. Patel and Pawar give great performances as Saroo, showing the different sides of his character's insular struggles. There's plenty of heart and comedy within the darker moments of the film, and it helps to create a unique drama that asks the audience to trust its intentions. That in itself feels like a subliminal technique by Davis to drive home the themes of the movie. Those willing to give it time will find plenty to love, feeling enlightened by a journey that many of us will face - even if it's just metaphorically. It is a film that won't change the world, but it will hopefully change how faith and loneliness relate to each other is explored in film.