Saturday, July 22, 2017
Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Kheshav Jadhav, Priyanka Bose
Running Time: 118 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Lion earns its Best Picture nomination in its opening half, trusting the audience to not only comprehend, but become completely enveloped in a story that's initially spoken entirely in Hindi, and without the benefit of subtitles. It turns out to be a wise bet. The opening 45 minutes are so expertly calibrated and performed, brimming with lump-in-your-throat moments of disbelief, perseverance and astonishment, it was almost inevitable that whatever followed would pale in comparison. That it doesn't, at least completely, is somewhat of a tiny miracle, with much of that credit going to Australian director Garth Davis, who in adapting Saroo Brierley's 2013 autobiographical novel, A Long Way Home, temporarily refutes the theory that Hollywood filmmakers pander to the lowest common denominator when it comes to depicting foreign cultures.
It opens with a mistake that has ripple effect on more than a few lives, but the true revelation might come in how frequently something like this occurs, or how little we hear about it. Then after a certain point, Luke Davies Oscar-nominated screenplay does kind of hit a wall, which has led to harsh criticisms that the film stretches out a 30-second spot for Google Earth to a two-hour running length. But there's just too much else it has going for it to make those completely complaints valid since, despite a weaker middle portion, the performances, cinematography and underrated musical score make it too powerful an experience to dismiss.
It's 1986 and a five year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives with his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), older brother Guduu (Abhishek Bharate) and younger sister in a tiny, poor village in Khandwa, India. One night, when Saroo joins his brother Guduu for a night of train-hopping for food, Guduu leaves his napping little sibling at a station and when Saroo awakens to find his brother hasn't returned, he boards a train headed to Calcutta. Now completely lost and wandering around a city where he doesn't speak or understand the Bengali language, Saroo must survive on the crowded streets and rely on the help of strangers, some with motives more nefarious than others. After landing in the custody of police and eventually an orphanage, Saroo is adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley and goes to live with them in Tasmania.
We catch up with him twenty years later as a young man (now Dev Patel), studying for his degree in hotel management and involved in a relationship with American classmate, Lucy (Rooney Mara). But despite Saroo having a fulfilled life and more than anyone from his background could have hoped for, there's an incompleteness that eats away at him, stemming from a desire to track down his biological family and make sense of that night's events over two decades ago. While his adopted mother struggles with family challenges of her own, Saroo wrestles with the guilt and hope of finding "home," embarking on a journey of self-discovery sure to have a lasting impact on those he holds closest.
The opening section actually shares some similarities with the last entirely Indian-flavored Best Picture nominee (and eventual winner), Slumdog Millionaire. And while we know, like that film, we'll eventually be given our happy ending, the scenes of kids on the street here have a far different tone, especially when watching a scared young Saroo aimlessly searching for his brother in a perilous situation surely qualifying as an immediate "Amber Alert" if it took place today in the states. Even in 1986, as commonplace as lost, homeless children in India may have been, it's still kind of frightening to see through western eyes.
What really sells this is the editing and the likably adorable child actor playing young Saroo, Sunny Pawar, whose combination of wide-eyed panic and innocence, along with some steely determination, carries the first half of the picture, eliminating the language barrier for both him and us. It seems like eternity he's on the streets, avoiding kidnappers and potential child molesters on his way to who knows where. It's disturbing how few people care about kids like him running around in the streets and really do nothing even when they think they are. That is until, by sheer luck, he meets someone who finally takes the necessary measures to offer actual help.
After watching this five-year-old struggle to survive after being separated from his sibling, it's of little surprise the second half of the film would have to work hard to match the Dickensian heights of its opening hour, both in tone and quality. But it works well as a logical next chapter, thanks largely to the strong performance of a nearly unrecognizable Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, whose suddenly jolted into finding his biological family, but fears the ramifications of what going forward with such a plan could do to his adoptive mother, already at the breaking point dealing with her other adopted Indian son, the emotionally disturbed Montash. The casting of both the child and adult versions of this role are spot-on, as actors Kheshav Jadhav and Divian Ladwa are so eerily identical in both manner and appearance you'd really think the filmmakers pulled a Boyhood, checking in with the same person twenty years later.
The entire second half really belongs to Patel, who nearly everyone had written off as a one-movie wonder after Slumdog Millionaire peaked almost a decade ago. And for a while there, it really looked like they were right. He returns in a big way here, a better, more mature actor, fully capable of handling the complexity of emotions running through Saroo as he embarks on his (Google) search for his birth mother. Just the very conceit of this true story could have been problematic on screen, but Patel takes what could have been a dramatically inert arc and draws us into his journey, which is as much internal as external. It helps that the first half of the picture was so strong, that our recollection of the opening half hour drives nearly all interest in the rest, with him filling in the blanks.
Rooney Mara's role and performance has been criticized by some as a throwaway, and while her work as Saroo's girlfriend Lucy won't be the first discussion point coming out of the film, it shouldn't anyway. It's entirely functional since we need to know the man that young boy has become and what his life evolved into in the twenty years since the train station, not to mention what he could potentially be risking or giving up by doing this. Her part is what it is, and the never uninteresting actress serves it well, despite the nagging feeling she could have been given more. The other half of the equation is Nicole Kidman, who as Sue gets opportunities in the latter half to convey a woman crumbling at the emotional distance that's been put between her and her family, which has more to do with the struggles of raising the far less adjusted adopted son than Saroo's secret urge to reconcile his past.
Intelligently addressing universal issues involving memory and identity, Lion tells a worthwhile, important story that most will feel more fulfilled having experienced. As for whether it manipulates, all movies do. The real question is how well. Aside from an unnecessary ending coda that spends too much time reinforcing a point the preceding hour and a half made perfectly clear (an epidemic these days), this more than passes that test, and does it with two phenomenal performances in the same central role, one which could easily be remembered as the year's most satisfying acting comeback.