Film Review: Lion (2016)

Dir: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
Runtime: 121 min
Spoiler level: Light

Last week, the local movie theater gods heard my prayers, despite the fact that January seems to be the month where new movies go to meet their doom. I wanted to check another Best Picture nominee off my “to see” list, and when I checked the Fandango app, I got the notification that Lion was starting a run at one of my local theaters, in answer to my plea. Sometimes, the local movie theater gods are benevolent and merciful.

lion.jpgI haven’t read the book that the film is based on, nor did I know much about the story going into it – but I’m glad I went in mostly blind, with only a general idea of what was about to unfold across the screen.

Lion, which is based on true events, follows Saroo Brierly, a young boy who ends up nearly 1000 miles away from home, with no idea how to get back. Several years later, as memories and “what-ifs” about his previous life begin to haunt him, he tries to balance his search for “home” with the life he’s built for himself and with the family who raised him.

The first segment of the film, following little 5-year-old Saroo’s separation from his family and his struggles in Calcutta, culminating with his adoption by Australian couple Sue and John Brierly, is utterly engrossing. Sunny Pawar’s performance as Saroo is the spellbinding heart of this film; watching him wander through dirty subway tunnels, flee from malevolent pursuers, and cry for his brother Guddu and his mother is heartbreaking and harrowing. That look at what life was like for him, from the suspicious people he encounters to the awful places he ends up – especially considering this film is based on a true story – makes his experiences as a lost little boy desperate for home all the more impactful, and it’s as wrenching as it is captivating.

Unfortunately, the film loses a bit of steam once Saroo ages up. It jumps right from young Saroo to adult Saroo, with a brief look at one year post-adoption, when the Brierlys add Mantosh to the family. These scenes are powerful, but it skips over adolescence, and ultimately, I think this made a bit of a lopsided narrative – the switch wasn’t seamless and the pacing suffered for it, as it seemed like a chunk was left out of Saroo’s history. Rooney Mara’s character, Lucy, acts more like a device than a fleshed-out character; her purpose is to give Saroo someone to interact with besides his adopted parents, often while they’re staring meaningfully at one another whilst laying on a mattress. The viewer only gets a glimpse into her life, through snippets that function as a tool to get Saroo to reflect on his own experiences. Mara’s performance is fine, and the chemistry between Patel and Mara is fine, and I understand why the character is there, but, although the story is not focused on her, the character lacks a concrete identity, which I found difficult to relate to in the context of the film. Since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know what content was added/cut or what liberties were taken with these characters (I certainly wonder about the depiction of Saroo’s adopted brother, Mantosh, who struggles with self-harm, as his backstory and prior to adoption is not really explored in the movie) but within the parameters of the film, the middle portion fell a bit flat, especially compared to young Saroo’s journey in the first arc.

The music is excellent – a fusion of strings and piano that enhances the atmosphere. The editing/cinematography also aids the flow of the narrative, with scenes contrasting the roaming wild of Australia to the varied landscape of India, representing how Saroo’s life has changed with his surroundings. Saroo’s memories trickle back to him throughout the film, with images and scenes of young Saroo and Guddu interwoven within various scenes, which then transition seamlessly back to older Saroo as he yearns for answers and desperately scours Google Earth for a glimpse of something familiar, something that says “home.”

Despite the pacing in the latter part of the film, the overall acting is stellar throughout. Eight-year-old Sunny Pawar deserves ALL OF THE AWARDS for his performance as young Saroo. ALL. OF. THEM. He carries the entire first arc of the film, with palpable joy, anguish, desperation, fear, and hope, and his interactions/scenes with Abhishek Bharate, who plays Saroo’s biological brother Guddu, are both heartwarming and gut-wrenching. Patel’s performance as the older Saroo, featuring occasional impish smiles and playful banter, is rife with emotional turbulence, and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t have to brush my tears away a few times when he spoke of his fractured past and how it feels to be “lost.” Coupled with the visual components of the film, Patel does a great job of showing how Saroo struggles to move forward while feeling such an incredible pull toward his past. Kidman’s portrayal of Sue Brierly is superb, though I found myself wishing she had more screen time – I almost feel as though the Lucy character could have been cut or minimized in favor of shedding more light on the mother-son relationship between Saroo and Sue, as well as her experiences as a mother to two adopted boys. Also, I was so pleased when David Wenham’s name showed up in the opening credits, as I had no idea he was in this until the film started – I am always down for an unexpected Faramir appearance.

Lion might not be getting the same amount of buzz that Moonlight and La La Land have garnered during the awards circuit, but this film, with its powerful, multi-layered definitions of “family” and “home”, lets out a big roar.

Overall rating: 8/10

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