PLOT An adopted young man searches for the family he lost in India.
CAST Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Sunny Pawar
RATED PG-13 (adult themes)
BOTTOM LINE A heart-wrenching true story, with what could be one of the great child-actor performances of all time.
Little can prepare you for the first half of “Lion,” Garth Davis’ beautifully filmed and emotionally wrenching story of Saroo Brierley, who as a 5-year-old boy became separated from his family in India. He grew up without them but never forgot them, and “Lion,” in its powerful opening sequence, makes sure we don’t either.
Saroo is played as a child by Sunny Pawar, a first-time actor from Mumbai whose impact on this movie is impossible to overstate. With his big, bright eyes and small, square jaw, Pawar’s Saroo cuts a heartbreaking figure as he traipses around behind his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate, another first-timer), whose kind face will also haunt us throughout the film. Where the boys live, exactly, isn’t clear, but we know they are desperately poor. They steal coal from trains, sell it to local merchants, then give their few coins to their mother (Priyanka Bose).
One night, Saroo wakes on a train-station bench without Guddu by his side and wanders, foggy-headed, onto a nearby train. The doors shut behind him. Days later, after a 1,600-kilometer journey aboard the unoccupied train, Saroo arrives in the city then called Calcutta. Unable to speak the language, read a map or recall the proper name of his tiny hometown, Saroo becomes another of Calcutta’s ubiquitous but invisible street children.
That self-contained saga is so overwhelmingly intense that the rest of the film has a hard time matching it. Adopted by a warmhearted Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, both excellent), Saroo grows into a handsome, slightly shallow young man, capably played by Dev Patel. He seems happy, although his girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara), senses a wound somewhere inside him. When Saroo finally decides to track down his lost family, “Lion” details his obsessive search — using Google Earth — to find the one train station out of thousands in India that will jibe with a childhood memory. It’s a fascinating process, though not as visually or emotionally compelling as what came before.
From here, the less revealed the better, because “Lion” ends with an emotional wallop. Its power comes from young Pawar, whose opening performance has never left us. Like Saroo, we are still that lost little boy.