#TIFF16 Review: Lion Is an Unforgettable Adoption Story
Not many people know that I was actually kind of adopted twice. Once taken from India at the age of one, and again at the age of twelve by my mother. A lot of people when they first meet me ask me if I’m from India, and my answer is always, “No, well, not really I was just born there. I moved to Canada when I was one, so I don’t remember much.” A conversation like this, with new college friends, is what sparks our protagonist, Saroo Brierley’s interest in finding his hometown and birth family. This story is based on the real story and memoir of Saroo’s journey back to his hometown through the use of Google Earth.
Lion starts by introducing us to five-year-old Saroo played by the captivating Sunny Pawar. Saroo lives with his mother who works as a labourer, his older brother Guudu with whom he shares a close bond, and his sister Shekilah. Their family is poor, but it is hard to overlook the joy and love that is present in their daily lives. Saroo is separated from his brother on an excursion out to find work and is left for three days on a train that takes him 1,200 km to Kolkata where the predominant language is Bengali not Hindi. Our young Saroo demonstrates tremendous resilience and street smarts, he doesn’t wallow in his situation, and learns that he must look out for himself. This part of the movie is hard to watch, knowing that I could have been that child. Eventually, Saroo is brought to an orphanage and finally adopted by an Australian couple played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham.
We are then introduced to Saroo as an adult, who is thriving in his new life and adored by his new parents. What impressed me about Lion, and what many will appreciate, is that it is not a happily-ever-after kind of adoption story. We see the family struggling, Saroo with his memories of his past, his troubled brother Mantosh, and his parents who are trying to keep their family together. Saroo has never forgotten his past family, he aches for his brother and mother, and the guilt that comes from leaving them remains with him. My therapist calls this a form of survivor’s guilt, when, as an adoptee, I start to feel guilty about the life I have been granted and the loss of the life I left behind. Dev Patel (in his best role yet) poignantly portrays the lingering sadness that comes to him in waves, with smells of jalebi, an Indian treat, that he longed for as a child, his inability to connect in personal relationships, and visions of his brother and mother.
Perhaps my favourite moment in the movie is when Saroo and his mother have an honest conversation about their reality as an adoptive family. Saroo apologizes for not being a blank slate to his mother who has to take on this baggage. This is an emotional war I wage on myself as well, and we see Saroo trying to reconcile his two lives. His extreme guilt at leaving his family and moving on and the guilt for even feeling that when he is supposed to feel grateful in his new family. I was shocked by the honest messages about adoption that were being conveyed–I felt like I was watching something I could finally relate to. All the identity issues Saroo was going through I had been through myself. Am I really a part of this family? Who am I? Where am I from? Who am I?
I won’t lie, I sobbed through this entire movie, but they weren’t forced tears. Lion moved me in a way that no other movie has done before. I find that adoption dramas can fall into trite and melodramatic stories that rush to the happy ending. This wasn’t trauma porn; this story was told to engage, to remind us that being vulnerable, whether as a child or adult, is something we can all connect to. It’s gritty and real and tells the true story of Saroo Brierley’s complicated journey back to his hometown. This is a story worth seeing and experiencing, and the scene of Saroo reconnecting with his mother in his hometown could melt the most frozen of hearts.
I’ll be honest and say I don’t often talk about the first year of my life; I rarely even think about it. This movie helped me come to terms with my own story. I still carry around that loss and grief with me everyday, but I can also look at my family and my life now with an appreciation. I don’t know why, like Saroo, I made it out of India, but I choose to be here, present, and to accept all chapters of my life. This movie did what no other has, it made me feel understood.