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Lost, found, looking 

'Lion' is as fragmented as its hero's past.

click to enlarge RETRACE YOUR STEPS: A young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is separated from his family after wandering onto a departing train in Garth Davis' Oscar-nominated "Lion."
  • RETRACE YOUR STEPS: A young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is separated from his family after wandering onto a departing train in Garth Davis' Oscar-nominated "Lion."

When first we meet young Saroo (Sunny Pawar), he and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) are hopping aboard a train car loaded with coal. They fill up their two bags and later exchange them at the marketplace for milk, which they take home to their mother, Kamla (Priyanka Bose). She works as a common laborer, carrying rocks, and the two brothers take on odd jobs to keep them and their sister fed. One evening, though, Guddu leaves his 5-year-old brother sleeping on a train station bench while he runs off to inquire about work, and the curious boy, upon waking, wanders into a train that soon pulls away from the station, depositing him several days and more than 1,000 miles away.

This separation is the real-life event at the center of the movie "Lion," nominated for six Academy Awards. Unable to speak the Bengali language of Calcutta, where the train finally stops, Saroo ends up living on the streets. There, children are often pursued by adults for purposes left unsaid. Eventually ending up in an orphanage, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierly (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, respectively), who take the child back to their home in Tasmania. Twenty years later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is studying hospitality management when the sight and taste of a particular Indian dish brings back all those memories and leads him to seek his family back in India.

Though Patel headlines the credits, the real star is his younger counterpart, Sunny Pawar, who shifts effortlessly between youthful glee and a despair perfectly manifest in that hundred-yard stare, that desperate casting about for someone kind or something familiar. Director Garth Davis keeps the camera on Pawar's level for much of his time on screen, so that the crush of adults in a train station, for example, feels all the more disorienting. In the latter half of the movie, Kidman delivers a true standout performance as we come to discover that her benign, do-gooder housewife persona masks an electric current of power and conviction.

Unfortunately, the other characters (especially adult Saroo) are not so fully realized, largely because of the painstakingly linear structure of the movie, which makes it lag at the very moment when its protagonist has reached his emotional crisis. Determined to find his family home on the basis of what landmarks he remembers, Saroo plots a radius of possibilities across the map of India and begins scouring Google Earth for train station after train station. When he's not staring into the computer, he's staring into the ocean while sitting on the beach, beer in hand, or he's staring into the eyes of his on-again, off-again girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), who tries to understand his torment but, due to narrative conventions, must be rebuffed. "Lion" runs through every cinematic shorthand to convey inner turmoil (working those violinists overtime) and then does it again, leaving its characters frozen in narrative amber until a penultimate revelation finally drives the plot forward again.

At its worst, "Lion" is a hackneyed tearjerker packaged as high drama. At its best, though, the movie tries to say something about the nature of identity, about how deep certain scars can run. "You didn't know when you were adopting us, you were adopting our pasts," an adult Saroo says to his mother, Sue, and though it turns out he underestimated her, it's true that we often treat children like little Lockean blank slates, as if our formative years are also the most trivial. Too, "Lion" also touches upon the nature of cultural identity in a diaspora, especially for those who did not voluntarily embrace their rootlessness. Unfortunately, while Saroo may ultimately be able to reconcile the components of his personal history, this movie struggles to bring its various parts together into a cohesive and meaningful whole.

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