It was Thomas Wolfe who said “You can’t go home again.” Let it be noted for the record that he didn’t have Google Earth. “Lion” is the story of a wanderer who did.
Saroo Brierley lost his way in India as a little boy in the 1980s, came of age in middle-class Tasmania in the 1990s, and relocated his family village by obsessively studying satellite imagery during the 2000s.
The story was a media sensation in Brierley’s two countries and the subject of his 2012 book, “A Long Way Home”; now it comes to the big screen on a wave of film festival warmth and awards. It’s an audience pleaser, too: broad, colorful, sentimental, and almost impossible to resist. Did Garth Davis, in his big-screen directing debut, sense that making a tighter, more focused film might have blunted its emotional impact? Probably not, but the effect of “Lion” on your tear ducts has little to do with cinematic skill. The story’s that foolproof.
“Lion” is divided into two parts, childhood and maturity. In the first half, Saroo is played by wide-eyed newcomer Sunny Pawar as a 5-year-old Bengali street urchin who loves his mother (Priyanka Bose) and who, with his older brother Guddu (Abiushek Bharate), steals coal from freight trains to resell for food money. By staying close to the boy and his point of view, “Lion” conveys the terror and wonder when Saroo mistakenly boards an empty train and finds himself thousands of miles away in Calcutta, unable to speak Hindi and unable to tell anyone where he’s from. All he knows is that there was a train station and a water tower.
The Calcutta scenes are tense and heartbreaking, and they dramatize an epidemic of child homelessness without overtly acknowledging it as a social issue. “Lion” is first and foremost empathetic to Saroo’s fellow lost boys and girls, and the movie has its antennae out for the many ways they can be abused by a heartless adult world. Story lines develop and peter out, eventually depositing the hero with a sigh of First World relief at the doorstep of the Brierleys, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), Australians living in Hobart, Tasmania, who adopt Saroo and, some years later, another Indian foundling, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav).
Saroo grows up and takes on the lean, intense likability of Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire,” TV’s “The Newsroom”); he’s a model son and student, in contrast to Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), whose developmental issues are another of the film’s many underexplored tangents. Saroo attends a hotel school and meets a British student, Lucy (Rooney Mara), who becomes his girlfriend. As he grows older he feels ever more rootless, a family and a home barely remembered, hovering just beyond reach. Enter the Internet.
In its quest for dramatic suspense, “Lion” pumps up the obsessiveness of Saroo’s years-long search; he gets a “crazy wall” of maps and railroad timetables and he drives off various loved ones for various lengths of time. All of this feels like padding to forestall the reconnection that he and we crave, that gives the movie its meaning, and that you would have to be a stone to resist (even with some less than convincing old-age makeup on some of the principals).
“Lion” is shameless and heartfelt and you’ll probably have a good, happy cry at the end. When a story pushes buttons so deeply wired into our consciousness — the prodigal returned, the childhood regained, the love restored — craft seems almost beside the point.
Directed by Garth Davis. Written by Luke Davies, based on a book by Saroo Brierley. Starring Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 120 minutes. PG-13 (thematic material, some sensuality).