By Jason Abdow
With award season in full swing I have made it a goal to check out all the films that will be contending in major categories. This is what ultimately drove me to see “Lion” at my local art house theater. I had no real expectations for the film, hearing mostly positive word of mouth but not the same kind of raving reviews that contenders like “La La Land,” “Moonlight,” and “Manchester by the Sea” have gotten.
The film follows the true story of Saroo, an Indian boy who is separated from his family after falling asleep on a train which takes him 1600 kilometers away from his village. The film breaks the story up into two halves, the first focusing on Saroo as a five-year-old trying to survive on unknown streets, and the second focused on him as a young adult trying to locate his old village. Oddly enough, the plot plays out in a way that makes this a mature counterpart to “Finding Dory,” which essentially shares the same central story as “Lion.”
In my opinion, the first half is the most consistent in quality and probably my favorite section of the film. The young boy they got to play Saroo (Sunny Pawar) delivered one of the best performances of any child all year. He was able to maintain a feeling of innocence, even when in dark situations, by displaying fear and despair in a subtle and nuanced way that most children could not even begin to attempt. Garth Davis, who makes his directorial debut here, is also able to capture the ugliness of Calcutta during this time period. The scenes of impoverished children and one particular scene involving child abductors really do show just how lucky Saroo was to make it out alive.
This is where Sue and John Brierley come in, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. The two actors are the only ones who are in both halves of the film and are an Australian couple who adopted Saroo and bring him into their home. Kidman is the standout of the two, portraying Sue Brierley as a kind-hearted woman who simply wants to make a difference in the world in whatever little way she can. Her intentions feels genuine and less self-important than several other characters who are in similar positions in other films. The second half especially has plenty for her to work with, with one scene where she explains to Saroo why she decided to adopted children really hitting hard. An Oscar nomination seems almost certain for her at this point.
It is the second half of this film that I think could have been cleaned up a little more. This is not to say it is bad, it is far from it, just not as cleanly edited as the movie had been before it. The entirety of this section is carried on the back of Dev Patel, who delivers possibly his best performance yet as an older Saroo. We follow him as he spends years using Google Earth and other tools to help find the village that he became lost from. Patel is able to show Saroo as a flawed person who is being eaten up by the guilt and stress of being lost from his original family.
The editing in some parts of this section can be messy, skipping around in time a little and getting a little confusing as to when certain things are happening. The relationship between Saroo and his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) also becomes a little inconsistent to me. Later I found out that the character was not based on one particular girl but instead several girlfriends Saroo had while searching for his original home, which made more sense but does not excuse the issue. Despite these criticisms, Mara does do a great job with her character and also clearly wants the best for Saroo. And while the editing has its issues, there is one particular scene where shots from Google Earth are spliced together with sweeping shots of those areas that comes together excellently.
By the time we get to the overall conclusion of the film, all these problems do not seem to matter as much. Not to spoil anything, but the ending of this film is probably the most satisfying conclusion I have seen from 2016. While it may be a predictable, the emotion is so powerful it does not really matter and it makes the entire ride the movie has taken you on feel all the more warranted. I cannot see anyone with basic empathy leaving this movie without at least a little joy in their hearts.
This is a movie that will be able to appeal to most people and is certainly one of the better movies of the year. Nominations for Best Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress all seem like locks to me after seeing this. I would highly recommend seeing “Lion” if you can, it is certainly one of the most inspirational stories to come to the big screen in years.