Leading up to the Oscars, I’ll be revisiting and reviewing all the Best Picture nominees. I’ll assess them on their own before bringing all the nominees together and breaking down which is truly worthy of the golden statue.
Today’s review is the incredible true story of a young man’s desperate search to reunite with his birth mother, Lion.
Directed by Garth Davis
Starring Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman
Plot: A five-year-old Indian boy gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from home. He survives many challenges before being adopted by a couple in Australia; 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family. (via IMDB)
I must say, my enthusiasm for seeing Lion was pretty much non-existent. Even when the film starting to get mentioned along with the other Oscar hopefuls during award season, it always felt like one of those melodramatic Oscar bait movies that manages to squeeze into the Best Picture list despite no one really praising it. I will admit, the movie I thought Lion would be is not the one I saw and it was much more engaging than I thought. But the final product still left me less than impressed.
Like Hidden Figures, this is an incredible true story that maybe could have existed on its own without the Hollywood treatment. It tells the story of Saroo, a young man who was separated from his family in India and, after growing up in with his adoptive family in Australia, seeks to find where he came from. The movie is really split into two halves. The first, which follows the incredible and harrowing journey of young Saroo, is what made me think I terribly misjudged the film. Director Garth Davis tells this section as through the eyes of the confused child. I was very impressed how well he engages the audience in this section despite minimal dialogue and moments of lurking danger which are purposely left ambiguous.Once Saroo is adopted and the setting moves to Australia, I was equally drawn in by a very honest portrait of an adoptive family.
By the time the film jumps ahead 20 years, I was now fully on board with this story. But the film quickly began to lose me in its second half. It really does feel like a different film at this point, and the energy and life it had in the first half fades to tell this story of an older Saroo trying to locate his home. I completely acknowledge the amazing real life journey Saroo Brierley went on, but the film’s telling of it robbed me wrong. Dev Patel is quite good in the role of older Saroo but I found myself very turned off by his actions. I can’t begin to imagine what Saroo was going through in real life and this might be an accurate depiction of his behavior, but the movie does a poor job explaining that behavior. He just begins pushing people away, people who are fully supportive of him and have given him no reason to act so selfishly. This is where the film started to veer into that dreaded Oscar bait territory as all this melodrama felt manufactured. Likewise, the storyline which dealt with the very real struggles an adoptive family faces never really connects well to the overall story and a lot of the complexities are left unaddressed.
It’s a shame that thee second half of the movie failed to live up to the first half, because the film has a lot of good qualities. First time filmmaker Garth Davis makes a very impressive debut and I look forward to seeing him handle a more solid script. The cast is also uniformly excellent, especially Nicole Kidman who felt very real as a mother trying to keep her family together but afraid of addressing the problems for fear of it all coming down. It had been a while since I saw her in a film and I had forgotten what a talent she is. I’ll also say that despite my issues with the overall film, I think it does a great service advocating for adoption. It recognizes the troubles but embraces the concept in a beautiful way.
Far from the torturous viewing I was preparing myself for, Lion is a wonderful picture in the first half but a flawed and forced melodrama in the second. Still, it is elevated from a promising debut from its director and the exception efforts of its cast.