The Problem with the Problem Child: Personal Thoughts on Lion

The Problem with the Problem Child: Personal Thoughts on Lion

Let me state upfront: I am adopted. I was born in China, when the one child policy was still in effect, and then placed in an orphanage when I was still an infant. Months later I was adopted and taken to America. This the context and reason for me writing this piece.

Spoiler Warning: I talk about some specific scenes, characters arcs, and allude to the ending.

Stories about adoption are important to me, both fictional and “based on a true story.” Besides simple catharsis, I care deeply about the narrative of adoption, which can be much more messy, complicated, and nuanced than most non-adopted people realize. You tell me there’s a prominent adopted character, I’m there. You tell me there’s an adopted character who gets some focus to process their feelings about adoption, I’m there. You can even get me with just characters who feel kind of sad about not knowing much about their heritage! So when I first saw the trailer for Lion and listened to Dev Patel admit, with that familiar undertone of apologetic embarrassment, that he didn’t know much about where he came from because he was adopted, I immediately knew that 1) I had to go see this film and 2) that I would cry at least once. (Spoilers: I cried three times.)

A quick summary if you didn’t click the trailer link: Lion is the film adaptation of A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley (ghostwritten by Larry Buttrose), a memoir detailing his adoption and search for his biological family. As a young child Saroo was separated from his biological family in India and adopted by a white, Australian couple. Years later he decided to track down his hometown (the name of which he sort of remembers the pronunciation of but doesn’t properly remember) through Google Earth and social media. Lion focuses somewhat on that process but mostly on his emotional arc, coming to terms with his sense of loss around his biological family and his internal conflicts in looking for them.

Lion is good. At least, I think it is. I’m not skilled at film analysis; the technical terminology tends to escape me and the sheer amount of sensory details makes it difficult for me distinguish what works and what doesn’t. All I have to go off of are my feelings after the whole experience and whether a film gelled with me or not upon reflection.

The structure can come off as kind of uneven. There is a significant chunk of time spent on Saroo’s childhood, particularly on his struggles once he became homeless and lost from his family. It’s almost meandering, emphasizing his love for his family and the horrors he experienced. Once it skips ahead to his adulthood it rushes bumpily through his emotions, from realizing he isn’t from Kolkata to his conflicted feelings over his search. When it’s not focused on his adoption or his familial bonds, it can get a little bogged down and almost confused at what it’s trying to do. That is, Lion doesn’t know what to do with Lucy, the love interest. This might have partly to do with her character being a kind of romantic placeholder for the women throughout the real Saroo’s life. Still, it hits all the emotional beats in ways that made sense and moved me. It might come off as a corny narrative (it ends exactly the way you think it would), as many inspiring “true stories” can be, but the film has deep empathy and compassion for Saroo.

It doesn’t have much compassion for Mantosh.

Mantosh is Saroo’s brother, his adoptive brother. The Brierleys adopted another Indian child about one year after Saroo was adopted. His appearance surprised me as he didn’t appear in any trailer I saw and yet this seemed like such an important element to me. From the moment he appears, it’s clear that he’s slightly off. His head is unevenly shaved. He doesn’t quite look at anyone. He’s quiet and unresponsive until he’s brought to the Brierley home. Then he lashes out in ways that are essentially self-harm. He screams at everything and hits himself so the Brierleys hold him down to protect him from himself. Sue Brierley, the adoptive mother, tells Saroo to play in his room, that things will be alright, and then leaves to attend to Mantosh. The scene ends with her sitting alone at a table alone in silence, clearly exhausted and saddened by the chaos of the day, and Saroo comforting her.

While Saroo’s arrival to the Brierley home was one of a quiet nervousness with a gradual transition to affection, Mantosh’s arrival is marked with disruption and instability. Saroo is the dream come true while Mantosh is the nightmare.

Later in adulthood, this dynamic doesn’t change. Saroo’s first scene after the timeskip features his parents congratulating him on being admitted to a hotel management program. Mantosh is conspicuously missing from the small celebration but unsurprisingly so. He’s a flake and a loner who’s done nothing notable, except for being a burden on Sue who still adores Mantosh, while Saroo resents him for how much he’s hurt Sue. By still hitting himself, by isolating himself, by not being much of anything worthwhile.

That final scene of Saroo’s childhood, witnessing Mantosh as unstable and harmful, and acting as caretaker for Sue, doesn’t change in adulthood. This framing puts Sue on a pedestal while Mantosh is allowed to be stepped on.

What makes this all more disconcerting is the blatant parallel with another child, a nameless boy who lived in the same orphanage that Saroo was at. He does not yell unprompted but hits his head against the wall repeatedly, resulting in implied physical abuse as corporal punishment by the adults running the orphanage. Later he is taken away, as he screams in fear, implied as part of a cleanup for inspectors coming that day. And he is never seen again.

Whether the nameless boy (also unsettlingly called “The Ghoul” in the rolling credits) already had behavioral issues before coming to orphanage or not, the adults’ abuse was not his fault. The conditions that these children came from, and the resulting trauma, aren’t within their control.

And yet the film posits Saroo as the Good Child, who is sad about his lost family but eventually integrates into the Brierley family, into Australian society. Meanwhile Mantosh is the Problem Child, whose issues are never empathized with, maybe pitied at best. The dynamic of the suffering adoptive parents being white and the either Good/Bad adoptees being people of color adds an extra layer of sour discomfort.

While Saroo’s struggles, his depression, his anxiety, his isolation, his lashing out is all empathized with, is understandable and almost noble, Mantosh’s understanding of himself is never even broached, except for a single moment of some dismissive self-awareness of being a burden on the family.

And maybe that’s okay. It’s Saroo’s story, not Mantosh’s. This isn’t a story of brotherhood or the whole family, but of a Saroo’s journey to find himself. Real life needs some compression for a narrative and that’s fine too. If the real life Saroo feels his perspective was accurately portrayed, then I really can’t have any problems with that. The voices and stories of adoptees being authentic as they can be is what’s most important to me, even if I don’t empathize with everything.

But that doesn’t mean it had to be like this. To split adoptees into a dichotomy of Good Child/Problem Child paints adoptees’ experiences not simply two-dimensional, but creates a standard for them imposed by the virtue of their adoption. Problem Child narratives are not new nor exclusive to adoption narratives but it can exacerbate the perception of adoptees as fundamentally broken children while laying the blame for their issues on themselves just for existing, rather than on the systems and societies that traumatize them. Children with behavioral issues don’t deserve more stigmatization and adoptees’ worth shouldn’t be measured by how well they get along with their families.

Mantosh didn’t need to be the Problem Child. When she is older, Sue alludes to good times in the childhood Saroo and Mantosh shared. When she speaks, there’s a shot of a framed photo of the brothers as children on a boat, smiling together. While Sue is shown as benevolent, almost to her detriment, could the film have not taken time to show these moments of love and happiness? That Mantosh was more than just his outbursts of screaming and self-harm? That he too was hurting? With this unforgiving, unloving framing, what does this teach people about children who have mental illnesses? Children who have developmental disabilities? Children who process their trauma in inconvenient ways?

I suppose that I am Saroo. I was the well-behaved child. I was the child who loved her mom and dad with sweet affection. I earned good grades and  praise from teachers, peers, and professional colleagues. As of right now I’m working towards my graduate degree with a vision for my future career.

But to a point I understand Mantosh. I’ve struggled with mental illness. I’ve repeatedly failed people in my personal and professional life. Sometimes I cannot tell if I’m simply selfish and lazy or whether my brain is tricking me into self-sabotaging myself. It is a hard and long battle to recover and improve myself.

If there’s anything I ask for from stories about adoptees, real or not, it is nuance. There doesn’t need to be some loud disclaimer about every possibility, every angle. But adoptees are people in their own right, not just brought into the world by the mercy of their birth parents or adoptive parents (depending on the story’s prerogative). Lion understands adoption as bittersweet at best, even as a result of society’s own failures, I simply wish for the same amount of good faith and compassion for children like Mantosh.

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8 thoughts on “The Problem with the Problem Child: Personal Thoughts on Lion

  1. I was hooked on the movie and absolutely sobbed at the end. For one thing, it tapped into my grief over losing my mom. For another it was an amazing story of finding oneself. I, too, was a bit sad about the portrayal of Mantosh. Part of me was glad that the story told people that adoption is not all cheery moments and kids that blossom with an adoptive parent’s love. But most of me was sad that Saroo’s brother was a minor part of the story and worse, that the reasons for his condition were left out. It could have been a call to help those who suffer such conditions in orphanages. Life is, as you say about adoption, is “messy, complicated, and nuanced”. I hope you don’t mind me sharing that one of my kids (neither adopted) is the one who feels that she has messed up (challenged by mental health) yet she is generous and creative. Then there’s the one who works hard to be the good kid, despite my efforts to tell him I love him just the way he is and his own self being is what matters more than anything else.
    Thank you so much for posting this! Good luck on your graduate degree.
    One step at a time.

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  2. This article may give some more insight into Mantosh’s life: http://www.mamamia.com.au/mantosh-brierley-lion/
    I think the portrayal of Mantosh in Lion was absolutely heartbreaking. I felt as if the movie was pushing me to believe that Mantosh was selfish and has simply made bad choices in life, but it’s so much more complicated in that. He was a victim of abuse, neglect, and rape. But for some reason the film seemed to give him no empathy. Completely and absolutely heartbreaking.

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  3. Thank you for this wonderful post. I watched Lion last night and had many, similar concerns–I found your post while looking for more information on the real-life Mantosh. The film is profoundly affecting because of the incredible, true premise but that premise, which naturally drives the plot, overpowers other aspects of the story, which if fleshed out would have made the whole more complex. In addition to a more nuanced portrayal of Mantosh, some more time/attention to the motivations and stories of the adoptive parents and to things that transpired in the jump to “20 years later” (or whatever the period was) would have made this even better.

    I did appreciate–as an Indian–the film’s portrayal of India. I thought it did a good job of not exploiting or exoticizing those settings and characters (and they actually had actors speaking proper Hindi and Bengali–though the Hindi of the Calcutta Bengalis was a bit too idiomatically smooth). I put this down to the film being an Australian, not big-budget American production.

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  4. What an insightful, honest, and compassionate review – thank you! I’m an adoptee myself and your bravery in sharing your struggles is so helpful to all of us who share similar struggles with identity, belonging, and justice in family relationships.

    I just watched Lion and share your observations about how the film, in its compression of story, diminishes and distorts Mantosh so unfairly.

    Another dimension that haunted me throughout the film was Sue’s deep and unresolved needs that she used her adopted sons to meet. An adoptive parents’ own unresolved needs are so often transmitted through guilt to the innocent child. So many scenes reveal Sue’s need for Saroo – a vulnerable child and young adult himself – to take care of her own unresolved emotional pain, which isn’t his responsibility at all.

    We are asked to see Sue as heroic for adopting this “brown skinned child” when the truth suggests her motives were less altruistic and sadly, born out of deep unmet needs from her own traumatic childhood abuse.

    This notion that we adopted children are less than biological children, that we really should be – and must demonstrate – guilt and gratitude for simply existing… well I think that’s a book and film that would inspire and heal millions.

    You’re a talented and sensitive writer… perhaps those futures could be yours to explore and tell! Thanks again for being one of the few reviewers online to shed light on the many dimensions of this (based on a) true story!

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  5. Great post. Just wanted to correct something, Shonedeep, the child in the orphanage who is punished in the classroom for acting out, is not taken out to avoid being seen by the inspectors coming the next day. He is taken out by a man who says “Don’t be scared; it’s me”, who the guards tell “Bring him back by morning”. The inspection wasn’t going to happen until the next morning. This was clearly an instance of a child molestor who bribed the guards to loan him the child repeatedly. Just thought you might want to correct that.

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  6. I was also left troubled by the treatment of Mantosh and the way he was perceived 😦 He cannot HELP his behaviours , he was a child with a very troubled background who was abused and I feel by watching the clips of him that he has Autism which makes him more vulnerable and a possible target for abuse and so of course the poor boy / teenager / adult is messed up as not only does he have his Autism to deal with but the trauma of abuse on top of it and I find that although Saroo was the ”good hero” of the film I did not like the way he treated his brother and put him down for causing him Mum pain as Mantosh could not HELP it both for neurological reasons and emotional ones so I also did not like the way Mantosh was portrayed in the film as the trouble maker who feels he has to ‘stay away from the family’ when he has the greatest needs of all and an understanding , caring adoptive brother would have helped his journey rather than hinder it

    I feel sad that such a wonderful film has left me feeling that people with disabilities are seen as a hindrance , pain in the ar*se , pain causers and basically huge negative burdens when they are indeed gifts and just as much of a gift to the family as Saroo

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  7. The movie was good, but the book delved a lot deeper into the characters as per usual. Part of the main reason the parents seem to have adopted was that they were part of the “Whitlam era” and believed overpopulation was impractical. Mantosh was shown in a much more empathetic light and his issues were delved into – Saroo even went as far to point out that he felt incredibly lucky to have escaped the same fate and never seems to hold any bitterness towards him. They’re both portrayed as fairly normal teens who choose different paths, but ironically end up in the same place as men (working in the family business)

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