In a way, Lion risks setting itself up for failure -- or at least for a major letdown.
I say this because the movie's opening act is so compelling that I wondered whether director Garth Davis would be able to sustain its harrowing trajectory. In the early going, Lion feels as if it's en route to becoming a classic movie about an endangered boy, something on the order of the great Brazilian film, Pixote -- if a little less harsh.
Working from a true story, Davis introduces us to five-year-old Saroo (a wonderful Sunny Pawar), a poor Indian boy who's separated from his family after he falls asleep on a decommissioned train. Saroo winds up in Calcutta where his life takes on a Dickensian flavor: He's homeless and defenseless.
Saroo is too young to explain himself to strangers who live 1,600 miles from where his journey began. His difficulties are further complicated by his inability to speak Bengali. He speaks only Hindi.
Even a helpful gesture from a kind stranger works against him. One such bit of help lands poor Saroo in a children's home where cruelty and abuse are the orders of the day.
Cute without being cloying, Pawar anchors this part of the movie -- along with Davis's terrific use of the Indian countryside and the squalid depravations of Calcutta. Watching a totally confused and frightened five year old trying to negotiate the teeming crowds at Calcutta's railways station makes for heartbreaking viewing.
The movie makes a major shift after its Indian sequences. As the result of a charitable intervention, Saroo is sent to Australia where he's adopted by two well-meaning and loving parents, convincingly played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. After about a year, Saroo's new parents adopt another Indian boy who has a more difficult time adjusting to life in Tasmania and who's played as a young adult by Divian Ladwa.
The movie's second half deals with Saroo as a young man portrayed by Dev Patel. At this point, what had been a terrific movie becomes a merely good one with the story turning its attention to Saroo's increasing desire to discover his roots. He begins having flashbacks to the early years of his childhood in India, which include memories of his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and the mother (Priyanka Bose) he adored and who adored him.
Bharate's Guddu has some responsibility for the way in which Saroo becomes lost, adding another level of poignancy.
During Saroo's period of self-discovery, he turns to the Internet to try to determine precisely where he came from. He stops paying attention to his girlfriend (a superfluous Rooney Mara), and shuts out his parents, refusing to tell them what he's doing. Patel conveys Saroo's torment, but this portion of the movie drags and also misses opportunities to develop additional scenes that might better have dramatized Saroo's struggle as a person suffering from spiritual homelessness.
None of this is to say that you should avoid Lion, which has a payoff that's designed to jerk real tears. And toward the end, Davis does a skillful job of blending Saroo's childhood memories with his adult quest.
Put in terms that risk a bit of reductionism, I'll conclude with this: Lion's Indian segments are a four-star knockout; the rest ... well ... give it three stars.