I’m adopted. I’ve always known I was adopted; my adoptive parents were very forthcoming and explained it very well to me. Born in West Texas to a young, single Hispanic woman, my adoption was closed, meaning I didn’t know any details about my birth parents beyond their first names and some generalities. Being adopted has always been part of my identity, and I’ve been comfortable and grateful for my familial reality. It wasn’t until much later in life that I began to wonder about my birth parents, especially my mother. Prompted by a viewing of the film Philomena, and with a spiritual nudge from the Divine, I set out to find my family of origin. And by “set out,” I mean “Googled.” Using the power of the Internet and the few clues I had–names, interests, a few cities, etc.–my wife managed to track down my birth mother. That’s only the beginning of my story. Were my biography made into a film (I’d be played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), this might be the end of the first act, an inciting incident that leads to even more twists, turns, and emotional revelations. For Lion, another biography-turned-film about an adoptee seeking his birth mother, this is the end of the tale. Lion is to adoption stories as rom-coms are to genuine romantic love: manipulative and sentimental, turning the beginning of the story into the climatic finale, and missing character development, important questions, and genuine emotion and catharsis along the way.
Lion is essentially Finding Dory meets Slumdog Millionaire, only the former is a more realistic depiction of an adoptee’s search for home, and the latter is more emotionally engaging. Lion begins with the journey of a young Indian boy Saroo (wonderfully depicted by newcomer Sunny Pawar) as he gets separated from his older brother Guddu in a train station and ends up 1600 kilometers away from his village in the bustling streets of Calcutta. Suddenly finding himself small and alone in a very large, very crowded world, 5-year-old Saroo navigates his circumstances with a quiet determination, fleeing from the first sign of danger (which is mostly adults looking to take advantage of an abandoned child). The first half of the film follows the child Saroo until he’s adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley, portrayed by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. The Brierleys are kind and understanding, and foster a genuinely caring and warm family environment for Saroo, as well as another adopted boy from India, Mantosh.
Twenty years pass, and the young adult Saroo (Dev Patel) finds his curiosity about his Indian birth family piqued while at school in Melbourne. His girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) is genuinely caring and supportive, but Saroo pushes her away, drops out of school and work, and isolates himself as he searches on Google Earth for the Indian train station where he was left. It feels less like an investigative search and more like an obsession or addiction. Saroo doesn’t tell his family about his search, doesn’t ask for help, and doesn’t really ask very many questions about his internal struggles. Filmmaker Garth Davis and writer Luke Davies portray this internal struggle through montage and editing, showing images of India and young Saroo juxtaposed with adult Saroo wandering about, pacing in his apartment, or staring at his computer screen. They’re trying their best to create genuine drama and emotional reactions from what is essentially watching someone do a lot of Google searches. The passage of time is unclear, but it seems to have taken at least four years of searching Google Earth before Saroo makes a breakthrough. That’s a lot of screen time, and a lot of the audience watching people watch screens. So the soundtrack and montage are turned up to make the audience feel All The Feels, trying to keep us engaged. The score from Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann is a rhythmic pulse of strings, an ethereal heartbeat intended to elicit the strongest emotional reaction possible. I’m sure it works. People in my theater were sniffling in the final climatic scene, the inevitable end to Saroo’s long search. But I wasn’t, despite being an emotional person. Why not?
When an adopted character is made into The Adopted One, they become less of a person and more of a cliche or trope. Akin to the poverty tourism critique of Slumdog Millionaire–another Dev Patel film about an Indian boy using his memory to gain something he desires–Lion uses the emotional weight of adoption for its own purposes to woo the audience over. We’re meant to feel sorry for the adoptee, as if adoption is somehow a disability. “Haven’t you wondered about where you’re from?” people ask adoptees. “Don’t you wonder who you really are? Wouldn’t you want to go home?” This word, “home,” is used often by Saroo in the film. And in a sense, he does have a home in India, a place where he was raised and loved for five years. But he also has a home in Australia, a mother and father and brother. Lion never really delves into the complications of being an adoptee with two families; instead, it opts for Saroo moping about or giving explosive emotional outbursts towards his mother and girlfriend. Poor Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara are given very little to work with here–they’re under-realized characters, essentially serving as emotional sounding boards for Saroo’s personal journey. Lucy in particular is so poorly underwritten, it’s difficult to know her role beyond being someone Saroo can sleep with when he feels like it. There are lots of scenes of them cuddled in bed together (no actual sex scenes) or them attending friends’ parties, but little else to help us understand the foundation of their relationship. Why would Lucy stay with Saroo? Why would he abandon her? Lion doesn’t bother to explore their relationship beyond sex or sentiment. Kidman’s performance is remarkable, given that her character, Sue, is also underwritten. She’s clearly tender and caring, yet also has a strength about her that’s never given much attention. In a conversation between Saroo and Sue, he bluntly tells her that he’s sorry she couldn’t have any children, dismissing her motherly affection as somehow being a self-serving motivation on her part. Clearly wounded by his comment, she corrects his interpretation–she and John could have had biological children, yet they chose the path of adoption. She shares the story of a vision she had, how she feels blessed to be a mother, and I thought, This is the character I want to spend more time with. Alas, she’s rarely seen again after this scene, apart from the only moment where tears did form in my eyes as she listens to a voicemail from Saroo telling her that she’ll always be his mother.
All of this is to serve The Adopted One, whose main conflict to overcome is his own adoption and find his “true” home. When he does find his “home,” the film ends, right when the story could be much more interesting and true to life. Does Saroo stay in India? What is his relationship like with his mother now? His birth sister? How has this changed or impacted his views on family, marriage, love, and sacrifice? Adoption and family relationships are all so much more complex than this, and such a story would be more dramatic and affecting. This goes back to my rom-com comparison from earlier–after a series of meet-cutes and mishaps, once the romance has been secured, the film ends in either a kiss or a wedding. We never see the marriage, the ongoing romantic relationship, which is the truly interesting and complicated part, the stuff of real life. Rom-coms and Lion choose fantasy over reality.
It’s interesting to note that in the book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul describes salvation as adopting children into God’s family, making us brothers and sisters in Christ, chosen and blessed. This salvation doesn’t simply end with the moment of adoption–it’s an ongoing process, what theologians call “sanctification” or the process and journey of living into the familial identity now given by God. Nor does this adoptive salvation invite us to go back to our origins in order to find our “true” selves. Our truest self is found in the Father, made whole by the Son, enlivened by the Spirit. The family of God transcends all other families; Paul notes that “every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” from God the Father (see Ephesians 3:15). All of this is considered good news. If you are a Christian, then you are adopted. Lion takes a beautiful reality–the good news of adoption–and turns it into a saccharine tearjerker full of ciphers. Lion makes me want to watch other, better, films about the beautiful mess of adoption and the search for one’s birth parents: Philomena, Secrets & Lies, The Kid with a Bike, even this year’s Finding Dory. I was prompted to find my birth mother after watching a film, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But it’s not without its complications, emotions, and setbacks. It’s a story worth sharing fully when it’s more realized–my story, and my mother’s story, goes far beyond simply the initial search. I love my adoptive family and I love my birth family. Adoption isn’t a cliche; adoptees shouldn’t be made into tropes. Adoption is a blessing and a gift. Let’s celebrate it with genuinely good cinematic art.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3741834/