If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me where my real parents were or if I intended to go back home, I could gentrify the Chinese province I was born in. It’s a benevolent and well-meaning question at heart, with home said in that pointed way Westerners have when they’re talking to someone foreign, but it’s also blithely uninterested in the complexities and nuances of adoption—particularly transracial adoption, where the child of adoption belongs to a different ethnic background than the parents.
Lion, which was directed by Garth Davis and adapted by Luke Davies from Saroo Brierley’s memoir, A Long Way Home, is just as uninterested in these nuances, opting instead for the easily consumable tale of a lost boy in search of capital-H home. It’s the story of a young Indian boy who is adopted by a white Australian family and then seeks out the village of his birth: Annie, but with less music and more colonialism and weird racial politics. (Both Davis and Davies are white.)
Late one night in a train station, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) falls asleep on a train car while waiting for his older brother, Guddu, and wakes up far from his home in a romantically impoverished India—specifically Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh. He winds up in an orphanage in Kolkata, where shortly after he is adopted by a Tasmanian couple, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. Flash forward to 20 years later, where the food at a friend’s party in Melbourne triggers in Saroo, now played by Dev Patel, an obsessive search for home. On the table, serving as a kind of Chekhov’s candy, are brightly colored fried treats called jalebi, which Saroo and Guddu used to drool over as children. Seeing them as a 25-year-old brings Saroo’s memories flooding back. As to what he has been doing since, all we know is that he’s now studying hotel management, in a relationship with Lucy (Rooney Mara), and that he begins to sacrifice his exceptional relationship with his adoptive parents for the sake of his journey of self-actualization.
Ali Wong has a joke in her comedy special Baby Cobra where she speaks of her and her Asian husband going on hikes, meditating, hanging Asian art on the wall. She quips, “It feels like we’re white people doing an impression of Asian people.” Saroo’s story feels like that joke: After six years of searching, he finds the village where he came from, the shack where he was raised. When, instead of finding his mother waiting with open arms, he discovers it’s now inhabited by a goat, he kicks the walls out of frustration. I couldn’t help but wonder what he expected. He doesn’t seem to have considered the answer to Lucy’s question, “What if you go and they’re not there?” He doesn’t even speak Hindi anymore.
I was adopted from an orphanage in Guangzhou, China, by white parents. When I was 6, at Disney World, I had a brief panic attack wondering where my birth family was. It was an unusual jolt that, retrospectively, was probably informed by the expectations people had for me at the time. I’ve not had any interest in looking for them since. Even at that age, people would ask me if I knew my “real” family, and, if not, when I planned on meeting up with them at Starbucks. Of the many gobsmacking moments in Lion, the most offensive is a conversation between Saroo and his adoptive mother, Sue, where he reveals his search and boldly, tactlessly says, “I’m sorry you couldn’t have children. I’m sorry you had to adopt us and bring us into your life.” I almost threw something at the screen. It takes a lot of gall to make that presumption, and Sue is rightfully taken aback, replying, “I could have had children, but I chose you.” So, too, was the case in my situation. My parents already had two biological children, though one died from complications from leukemia, but they had been set on adoption since they had started considering children. In spite of my very complicated relationship with my mother, not once have I been callous enough to say, “I’m sorry you had to adopt me.”
To hear that from someone, fictional or not, hurts. There are certainly complications and complexities regarding the politics of white people adopting children of color, but such a statement is harmful to the lives of adopted children. Even though Saroo’s statement is rebuked, it suggests that the children of adoption are a burden.
It’s hard to believe that a 25-year-old Saroo hasn’t so much as been to an Indian restaurant since coming to Australia. The group of children I was adopted with were more or less deluged with their cultural heritage. We grew up knowing where we came from, what was important or interesting about our given province, and why we were special. I was so drowned in China-related things that a part of me wanted to reject it all and assimilate into society as a straight, white, Christian kid, to avoid all questions. It’s weird that a messy, imperfectly handled storyline on Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt should be able to grasp more complexities of race and assimilation than a prestige drama that’s likely to be nominated for an Oscar.
Our collective and shared understanding of identity continues to grow more and more complex, nuanced, and perhaps less grounded in traditional notions of what our “self” is. 2016 feels like one of the most crucial years for art in the context of artists from marginalized backgrounds asserting their voices—not asking to be “understood” per se but to be respected for the nuances of and intricacies of their identities. Finding Dory and Hunt for the Wilderpeople acknowledge this complexity without being didactic, and one of the best films of the year, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, knows there are no easy answers.
Lion boils those ideas down to the simple and the easily palatable. The film was nominated for four Golden Globes, including Best Drama, and Harvey Weinstein’s golden hand is pushing it forward to Oscar glory, waving its “true story” around like a badge of honor. We see this narrative so rarely (although it’s an arc on NBC’s This Is Us), and there are fascinating and messy things to unpack from these dynamics. Lion doesn’t want anything to do with them. It’s more besotted with an Oscar-friendly fairy tale.
Worst of all, Lion perpetuates a damaging, disingenuous narrative, giving the okay for nonadoptees to ask intrusive questions about one’s background, in the context that the background makes the person. The family you have, through adoption or construction or choice, isn’t good enough, isn’t a satisfying enough answer to “Who are you?” Lion and its ilk peddle the antiquated idea that home is not so much an idea but a rigid thing, a specific space and place. But as Burt Bacharach once said, a house is not a home.