It’s always weird when people use products in movies. If a character picks up a Pepsi, I immediately assume Pepsi paid money for that to happen. Sell outs! But if a character picks up a generic can that just says “soda” on it, I can’t help but think that’s stupid because it’s not realistic. Why couldn’t the character just drink a Mello Yello? So this is a no-win situation inside my brain. I mention this because Google Maps plays a huge role in Lion, which just debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s the best advertisement ever made for Google Maps. “Hey, we can even help reunite you with your long lost family – pretty good product, huh?” But if Google maps weren’t used in this movie – replaced by a generic “internet map program” – it would be ridiculous because that’s not accurate. Anyway, in the end, this feature length commercial for Google Maps made me cry.
Garth Davis’ Lion, based on a true story, begins in 1987 when a young Indian boy, Saroo, and his brother are playing on the local train tracks. Their train adventures don’t stop with the tracks, as the pair often climb on top of the trains and wander inside the trains. Unfortunately, Saroo becomes trapped inside a locked train and is whisked away on a two-day long journey that takes him to Bengal, India. Lost, Saroo is almost captured a couple times by child traffickers (there’s a particularly grim, disturbing scene) before finally winding up in the hands of the authorities. They try to help him, but no one has ever heard of the city he says he’s from (he’s pronouncing it incorrectly) and he only knows his mother’s name as “Mum.” After some time in an orphanage, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who move young Saroo to Tasmania.
The film speeds us forward 20 years. Saroo (Dev Patel) is by all accounts an successful, upstanding young man but he struggles with his identity. And this is what makes Lion so fascinating: Saroo knows he lives a life of privilege, but is overcome by guilt because he knows his family lives with the pain of loosing and not knowing what ever happened to him. He loves his adoptive parents (he has a complicated relationship with his brother, Mantosh, who was adopted by the Brierleys after Saroo) but feels an overwhelming urge to find his birth family – but that seems impossible because Saroo has no idea where he’s even from.
Enter: Google Maps.
Remember, this is in 2008, when Google Maps was wonderful and new and so much better than MapQuest. And they had that Google Earth feature that let you look at the terrain of anywhere on Earth. We take this for granted now, but then it was an amazing thing. (Now I sound like a commercial.) Saroo only remembers glimpses of his hometown – he remembers a distinct set of two water towers – so he spends months studying the maps in a specified radius surrounding Bengal. Basically, anywhere a train could have come from over the course of two days. It’s a large area, but Saroo is obsessed (to the chagrin of his supportive girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara).
Yes, I was worried this movie might be one of those “white people save the day for a person of color” type movies, but that’s not what’s going on here. This is entirely Saroo’s story, while the Brierlys remain in the background. They are nice people, but Lion is about the internal inside Saroo. He is a man who will never find peace until he learns where he’s truly from. And he’s never trying to reestablish his life back in India: he accepts that the Brierlys are his parents (displayed in a very touching scene) but he has to try to end both his pain and the pain of his birth family.
This is a nice story. It’s a crowd-pleasing story. And it’s good to see Dev Patel – a terrific actor – get such a great leading role. He’s an actor who deserved better than movies like Chappie and The Last Airbender in his post-Slumdog Millionaire career. (Patel has had great roles since Slumdog, but Lion is his career-best performance.)
Lion is based on a true story, so the details of what happens are out there if you want them. It’s a great story – a story that could never happen without the modern technology of the world we now live in. And suffice it to say, the last 30 minutes of Lion are extremely emotional and, yes, will probably make you cry. You will cry during the greatest Google Maps commercial ever made. Maybe bring a tissue. (And, at the very end, you will finally learn why this movie is titled Lion.)
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.