DIRECTOR: Garth Davis
PRODUCERS: Iain Canning, Angie Fielder, Emile Sherman
WRITER: Luke Davies (adapted from A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose)
INITIAL RELEASE: September 10 2017
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
STARRING: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Ladwa, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sunny Pawar
Garth Davis’ feature debut Lion is the gripping and deeply moving screen adaptation of A Long Way Home, written by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose, both of which concern the true events of Saroo’s harrowing and often tragic upbringing: becoming a “lost child”, drifting homeless through India, and finally being adopted by his Australian parents, only to eventually seek to find his lost Indian family.
Lion is to me a ringing endorsement for the power of story telling wherein the story itself is so worth telling, and there’s little doubt that Saroo’s journey certainly qualifies as that. Lion’s finest moments are mainly in its earliest, and it’s the initial half of the film that follows Saroo’s childhood in India lost from his family the hits the hardest. Davis wisely avoids overt melodrama in favor of a very sharp, stark, and frank depiction of a young Saroo’s struggle alone in India. No small amount of credit has to go to Sunny Pawar, who had the tough task of portraying young Saroo, and succeeded in delivering a strong and moving performance. I really can’t stress enough how much Pawar matters to Lion; because it’s his perspective that is the heart and soul of Lion as such an emotionally gripping story, and it deserves as much praise as it can get.
So much of Lion’s first half does such an excellent job of not just articulating Saroo’s harrowing experience, but doing so through the very particular lens of a child: as a viewer, it was seamless to transplant my mind into the mindset of young Saroo: it’s that curious combination of surprisingly sharp intuition that comes from Saroo’s upbringing coupled with a naïve and only half-formed picture of the world that comes through so clearly on the screen that its impossible to tear oneself away from it. The way that this perspective later informs an adult Saroo’s (Patel) search for his childhood home is marvelous as well: Lion does an excellent job visually representing the often fractured and oddly specific nature of our vivid childhood memories, and coupled with Dev Patel’s genuinely moving performance, it all hits incredibly close to home.
With that said, however, its when Lion reaches into its second half that its problems start to rear its head. To be clear, these aren’t problems in the crippling sense one might call “problems” in a film: Lion is an excellently made film by all standards. Tightly shot, scripted, and directed, Lion has a great sense of pacing and propulsion and rarely feels directionless or meandering. No, Lion’s problems are more that it perhaps dips into slightly too-familiar territory in the film’s later half: it moves a bit too far away from the starkness and subtly of the depiction of Saroo’s childhood and indulges slightly too much in melodrama in its later half. Granted, very well executed melodrama, but melodrama all the same. And while this is melodrama that’s reserved by most standards of the term, it still ends up feeling a bit at odds with the more reserved tone of its earlier half, and I feel like Lion would have been better served trying to indulge in the tropey aspects of its latter half a little less. Given the nature of the story, it shouldn’t come as much surprise that much of Lion is focused on Saroo and his story, but this does also mean that much of the supporting cast feels a bit flat and under-developed, save for some minor character exploration with Saroo’s adoptive mother Sue (Kidman), and to a lesser extent Saroo’s other adopted Indian-born brother Mantosh (Ladwa); beyond that, there wasn’t much given to anyone else, and in the case of Mantosh, the moment of closure for that particular narrative arc isn’t exactly satisfying. Rooney Mara I felt was particularly wasted in her role, which was a tad odd given she was the other of the heavy-hitter names involved in Lion.
Really, its tough to quantify my exact feelings on Lion on a technical level and its functions as a film: it doesn’t necessarily do anything truly memorable or really unique compared to what I’ve already seen this past year. And with it being awards season and all, it would be pretty easy to assess Lion based on its fairly overt “Oscar Bait”-y qualities. And I would be lying if the film’s overt references and heavy leaning on Google Earth as an essential part of the film’s plot didn’t come off as more than a little cynical, irrespective of its basis in reality. But unlike some genuinely “Oscar Bait”-y movies, Lion treats its material with a great deal of reverence and respect in spite of its more outwardly cynical elements, and this comes through incredibly clearly in that all-important first half of them film that strips away any pretension to depict an excruciating and traumatizing experience that’s feel authentic.
Overall, I think its best to describe Lion as having its greatest value in the sum of its parts being strong enough to bring together its story in such an excellently paced rollercoaster of emotion. Because at the end of the day, I think that’s the greatest value of film as a whole to our wider culture: to tell stories that resonate and remain in our minds. And even if the specifics of Lion won’t be remembered, its story will, and I think giving a wider audience the chance to take that story in is valuable enough in its own right to make Lion well worth watching.