Sadly, no tigers or bears.
Lion is another Oscar nominated biopic that is going to throw everything imaginable at the audience to force them to like it. I have written of my mixed feelings towards the biopic genre as a whole, and this one does fall victim to some of the issues that all of them seem to. However, the story of Saroo as he loses his family, finds a new one, and eventually finds himself compelled to search for his birth mother is powerful. The film provides good acting, directing, and a compelling story, but something about the entire experience did not sit well with me.
The film is broken into two parts, and the distinctions between the two almost make them different films. Sunny Pawar does a fantastic job as young Saroo. Several chunks of his childhood are shown to the audience without dialogue—instead, we get a true cinematic telling of the hardships of life in India, his innocence, and eventual terror.
After his brother must leave Saroo to look for work, Saroo boards an empty train to sleep. He is trapped within the train for two days and ends up in Calcutta where he cannot communicate. The loss and fear that Pawar portrays steals the show. There are several scenes where his safety is obviously jeopardized, and I was not certain how safe he was, as I was not familiar with the story.
Saroo is one of the lucky children in that he is adopted by an Australian couple (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). I use the term lucky loosely here. The couple does save him from physical and sexual abuse, but he is still a lost child. There is a complicated plot here, and the film does not cast the Australian couple as the villains (which is the correct thing to do), but instead, we as the audience can recognize the difficulty of these situations for all involved.
The film shifts rapidly into the second phase here. We have a twenty-year jump and Dev Patel takes over the role of Saroo. Here is where the film changes course for the worse for me.
We are introduced to the older Saroo right before the obsession with finding his birth mother begins. His personality changes greatly, and he alienates almost everyone around him during this period. What makes this problematic is that it just seems like Patel is a bit of a jerk. We hear that he was all his parents ever wanted out of him, but we don’t see these things. The film could have transitioned to this point better by giving us more of Saroo growing up. The sudden break doesn’t quite work.
Further, at this point in the movie, Saroo becomes more introverted. We as the audience see him interact with the environments around him as a child, and we are able to see the story told through these experiences. As an adult, Saroo spends most of his time staring at Google Earth. We cannot get into his mind fully at these moments. I am certain the novel does a better job of showing us what he is thinking, but the film is hard to gauge along here. How long is he looking for his mother on the computer? The span of time is uncertain, but it certainly takes years.
The imbalance is a little unfair to the actors in the second half. I know Patel is not everyone’s favorite, and I have heard negative comments about his performance here, but I have to put more blame on the writer and the director. Patel is doing the best with what he is offered, but you can only act so well staring at a screen and being irritable with everybody around you.
Lion is a good story that is told in an imperfect manner. The emotional moments are filmed heavy-handedly, and there is a strong imbalance between the halves of the films. However, I do recommend the movie—not certain it is best picture material, but the true story behind the movie is quite amazing. 6/10