Lion tells the true story of an Indian kid who gets lost from his home. After getting adopted by an Australian couple, he finds his way back home decades later with the help of technology. It’s an interesting story on paper, but it doesn’t necessarily work all that well when put on film.
The problem is that everything about Lion can already be seen on its surface. There is no depth or other avenues within the story or even the characters that can be explored. Kid gets lost, experiences a couple of harrowing months wandering the streets, gets adopted, grows up, and finds his family. What you see is what you get. The story meanders through a straight narrative line from beginning to end with barely any signs of life along the way. There is no arc to be found anywhere, and although it ends on an emotionally cathartic moment, it ends up feeling mundane instead of climactic.
The problem is that the film doesn’t really have a focus. The first half of the film is dedicated solely to a young Saroo getting lost and trying to survive on his own on the streets. This is easily the highlight of the film because we get a really good handle on his character and the enormous struggles that he faces. We get emotionally invested in him and we want to see how he survives his plight. But all of a sudden, his arc and story essentially ends once he gets adopted by a loving couple and moves to Australia.
But of course, the story doesn’t end there. It can’t, because now we have to see how he manages to find his family again. The second half of the film begins decades later, with a fully-grown Saroo being haunted by the loss of his original family and wanting to find them with the use of technology. At this point, it feels as if the movie has started all over again. Saroo is a completely different person now, with a completely different life. Not even his parents are the same, because the hardships of raising another adopted kid with mental issues have also changed them, particularly Saroo’s mother. The connection between the first half of the film and the second half is almost non-existent, because this drastic time jump has changed things so much that the film struggles to find a narrative consistency.
This is why we barely get to know the fully-grown Saroo. Unlike his younger self, who clearly followed an arc, the older Saroo doesn’t. Not long after we’re introduced to him, memories of his childhood begin to haunt him and drives him to do everything he can to find his family again. We never really get to know the older Saroo apart from this determination. To make things worse, he spends most of this time all by himself after driving away his girlfriend and hiding his search from his adopted mother. So we are left watching Saroo look at maps and computer screens and close his eyes as he remembers things from his childhood. Without even fully realizing it, the film has already fallen apart and the question of whether or not he finds his family again ceases to be interesting (if it ever was in the first place).
A more compelling development would’ve been to see how a young Saroo adapts to living a comfortable life along with his adopted mother’s struggles in taking care of a troubled kid. There are hints of this story arc in the second half of the film, wherein Saroo resents his adopted brother for making life more difficult for their parents. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really go anywhere and the film breezes by it. It might have resulted in a clunky mess of a movie if they focused on this aspect more than they already did, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a far more interesting storyline than watching Saroo scroll through Google Earth.
Adapting true stories can be tricky, because unless a filmmaker has no qualms about severely changing facts for the benefit of a more compelling narrative, they are essentially stuck with showing the truth. Real stories, even dramatic ones like Lion, don’t really make for interesting movies most of the time. Real life is slow and rarely interesting on a consistent basis. Lion clearly struggles with this fact and although I can appreciate its dedication in staying true to Saroo’s real-life story, it ultimately doesn’t work all that well as a film.