A real-life fairy tale several times over, "Lion" is blessed with a "Ripley's Believe It or Not" story line that would warm the heart of a stone. But as the Brothers Grimm knew, fairy tales present obstacles along with blessings, and that is the case here as well.
The problem "Lion" has to deal with is that, despite stars as strong as Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara, it's impossible to get people into theaters without acknowledging the story's irresistible specifics. And once you reveal the conclusion, how are you going to keep audiences entertained until the narrative gets there?
As directed by Australia's Garth Davis in his feature debut and written by Luke Davies based on the memoir "A Long Way Home" by Saroo Brierley, "Lion" has adopted a canny strategy to keep viewers interested that works well at times and not so well at others.
Brierley currently lives in Hobart, Tasmania, and his story, which was a media sensation at home, is a singular one: A native of India who got profoundly lost and separated from his family as a 5-year-old child, he was adopted by an Australian couple but was able, a quarter of a century later, to use Google Earth to find and reunite with his birth mother.
What "Lion" perhaps inevitably focuses on is not so much the search itself, which involved extended and not especially photogenic computer use, but the different kinds of jeopardy Saroo faced as both a child and a man.
As a boy, Saroo's difficulties are inflicted on him by an unfeeling, not to say hostile world, and their impact on us, as is usually the case with child-in-jeopardy scenarios, is considerable.
As an adult, though well-played by Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Saroo's wounds are almost all self-inflicted, and their intensity comes off as less convincing and more contrived than his childhood woes.
Part of the reason for that is that, paradoxically, filmmaker Davis, a top international commercial director who co-directed the "Top of the Lake" series with Jane Campion, seems more at home visually in India than in Australia.
Davis is also helped immeasurably by the casting of young Sunny Pawar as the boy Saroo. A neophyte as an actor, this tiny, self-possessed performer is electric, using his expressive eyes to convey emotions that are unmistakable but still restrained.
Once "Lion's" can't-miss conclusion hovers into view, the film's periodic over-dramatization matters less. A story like this is finally impossible to mess up, and pretending otherwise is beside the point.
Cast: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, David Wenham.
Director: Garth Davis.
Screenwriter: Luke Davies. Based on the book "A Long Way Home" by Saroo Brierley.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 120 minutes. Sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Dec. 25 at area theaters.