REVIEW: Lion

14 11 2016

Houston Cinema Arts Festival

I left Garth Davis’ “Lion” feeling as if I had watched two acts from a good movie – the first and the third. If you recognize common parlance surrounding story structure, you might detect that I neglected to mention the second act. Yes, that is what I meant.

The sprawling cross-continental tale of “Lion” is essentially split in two. In the first half, a young Indian child Saroo (Sunny Pawar) winds up stuck on a train that takes him thousands of kilometers from his native town. With little knowledge about his family or surroundings, Saroo falls into foster care and winds up adopted by a philanthropic Australian couple John and Sue Brierly (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). In these early scenes, Davis comes quite close to achieving a kind of neorealism; shots that place a confused, lost Saroo in the vastness of the Calcutta metropolis are haunting.

Then, at the midpoint, the film flashes forward twenty years to a grown, well-adjusted Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) headed off to study hotel management. He seems fine until, of course, a question about his birthplace opens a Pandora’s Box in his brain. With a little help from Google Earth, Saroo attempts to pinpoint his home within a vast radius of possible points of departure. If you doubt his commitment, just look at the scraggly hair and scruffy beard he grows!

Perhaps the back half of “Lion” would feel less like a television movie of the week had screenwriter Luke Davies included a little bit more information about what led Saroo to become the man who would doggedly pursue the truth about his heritage above all else. As an audience, our attachment to the character comes primarily through the adorable, disoriented child version of Saroo. We know little about Patel, and without a “Philomena“-style attitude or a “Spotlight“-esque focus on tedious processes, “Lion” does little to close the pathos gap between the two iterations of its protagonist. Leaving the audience to supply the difference without providing any context on what drives the changes from boy to man is not a winning strategy.

Sure, the inevitable ending of “Lion” is moving, provided you do not have a heart of stone. But imagine how much richer the feeling could be had we known more about what kind of life Saroo lived in the twenty years elided by the film. For example, what if we saw more of the pain that stems from living away from your biological mother. Or what if we observed him becoming enticed by the life offered by the Brierlys and how it incentivized him to wipe away the past? The film is missing some connective fiber that could move it from being a mere story to embodying the story of a lifetime. C+2stars