This is not just why I started reviewing movies, this is why movies were ever even made. There are movies I’ve rated A+ that I’ve simply changed my mind on, but this puts all of those down almost several grades in comparison. If I’d seen Lion in 2016 or 17 (it was released once in November 2016 and then kind of a re-release in January) it would’ve probably been #1.
This movie tells the story of Saroo Munshi Khan, who once managed to take and pocket some coal from the top of a train with his brother Guduu on occasion in his Indian hometown of “Ganeshtaly” to help raise a little bit of money for milk. There’s never enough money for sweet, lovely jalebis, and his older brother promises to have the money for some one day. It’s just the two of them, plus their baby sister and mother. I learned Saroo’s father left before he was born, running away in fear, leaving their mom to scavenge, and them not having a choice but to do labour to assist, even though Saroo’s no older than five. One day, Guduu says he’s going to be gone for a week to find work, and Saroo insists on coming as well, showing he can lift anything, from a giant wood chair to a man-sized rusty bike. Guduu reluctantly agrees, but Saroo’s sleepiness ends up getting in the way, so he stays to rest on one of the train station benches while Guduu goes out searching for…well, locusts to appear, I suppose. Hours pass and Guduu doesn’t return when he awakens, and Saroo decides to look around in one of the trains. Then he accidentally falls asleep there…and he awakens to find it moving at 100 miles an hour, and he can’t get to the conductor because the door is locked, can’t yell because it’s too noisy, can’t even open a window because they’re barred shut! He arrives in a city thousands of kilometers east of his hometown, all alone, no food, water, clothing, or even able to speak Benghali, the primary language of the city. After months of scavenging through garbage and unable to trust anyone to love and care for him, he eventually ends up accepted into an orphan house where two English-speaking adults from Australia named John and Sue agree to take him home with them. He ends up no longer afraid, his last name changed to Brierley, with a roof over his head and all the hugs he could ever need…except he doesn’t have all the hugs he needs. As the years go by, every day he worries how sad, how scared Guduu and his mother are, searching for him, losing hope every day of his return.
There are days that go by where I think about how lucky I am, how in the way our world is structured, white males who live in North America and grow up with a biological family are the most expected to live comfortable lives. Then I think about how unfair it is, how horrifying that there are so many third worlds out there, how as I learned from this movie, over 80 thousand children go missing in India alone every year. Even worse, you get the feeling when we are with Saroo all alone in this dangerous city that his situation is so normalized that no one is trying very hard, or hard enough, to support him. Some even see him as a possible free tool, or a hindrance when he tries to ask for directions. Some maybe as a type of tool for their pleasure, and I felt very frosty chills thinking about how vulnerable homeless kids must still be to paedophilia and living in unsanitary, rough conditions. Yet at the very least there’s a tiny bit of kindness that seeps through part of the way from passersby and other victims, not so much that it gets sappy and not so little that it feels like there’s no reason for Saroo to completely lose hope.
This film pulls zero punches. Even when Saroo is lucky to make it into a place I called some sort of demented foster home that chose to treat odd behaviour with discipline instead of patience…yeah, he really isn’t much luckier. It feels like every form of hospitality outside of your family has a twist too brutal to imagine. When we meet Sue (Naomi Klein) and John, (David Wenham) we feel grateful they did what they did, and we can see in their eyes they’re trying to imagine the inhuman amount of abuse this sweet little kid has gone through and how best it could be to embrace him. And when the role of Saroo shifts from Sunny Pawar to Dev Patel, we see they still love him as their son like life itself.
From simple description, this may sound like a white-saviour story, with John and Sue rescuing Saroo from his dilapidating hometown to the luxurious white Australia. That is not even remotely the feeling I ended up having. Sue (and I’m not referring to her as Kidman because I don’t see these people as simply acting their parts) gives a small speech near the climax, confessing something to Saroo that made me eternally grateful there are those like her and John on the planet. Sue and John (Sue more) end up going through a depression when Saroo ends up more depressed, and he doesn’t tell them exactly why he’s feeling paranoid and shutting everybody out, but they suspect they are partially at fault for perhaps treating him like an adopted son rather than a biological son they might have preferred. We later learn these thoughts are complete bull. This story, not just for its message but how powerfully honest the actors performed it, could supremely effectively convince all kinds of families to open up to themselves about their troubles. The results could actually be more touching than you might think.
Kind of like the new Rocketman movie minus the lyrical pauses, this is a drama that takes place over decades, and within that time, Saroo had to in real life feel the worst possible kind of regret; that he felt he wasn’t smart enough as a five-year-old to know enough about his town to relay proper information to people when he got separated, and then every day he didn’t at least try to find his way back home, his brother and mother were going to bed crying, feeling it was more and more unlikely as the years went by they would ever reunite with their loved son and little brother.
The only thing I would’ve changed, or added, was more of an insight into the relationship between Saroo and his other adopted brother, Mantosh. This is also part compliment here; some movies basically have so much they have to go off of that it would probably make the movie drag to focus on some other things, but we can still feel by the end more could’ve been touched on. Here the movie is more than good enough for it to have been 15 minutes longer to learn more about this brother of Saroo’s. Mantosh is definitely another interesting character, someone who clearly went through cruelty before he was taken in, and we get the feeling this fear, this ability to easily lash out, turned him over the years into a guy others look down on, someone they may feel doesn’t deserve respect, so he won’t give it back. If we’re not going to be exactly told why he is the way he is, at least we get an impression that leaves us to our open imaginations.
This movie is one of the best of this decade, a relentlessly tragic story put onto the screen that mimicks so many other untold stories in our cruel world, except not all of them end up having a chapter in their lives where Saroo gets adopted by a loving, wealthy family, nor finds hope they will one day be reunited. It’s a movie that reminds us that so long as we have our families, there’s no such thing as being alone.