Director: Garth Davis
With the end of every year, we are bound to be served a healthy helping of good-natured old-people entertainment. These films often aim to be Oscar-bait and mostly succeed. They aren’t always bad films, but they are to the awards season what a third-party candidate is to the American democracy: a wasted vote. Politics aside, the Weinstein Company has (more than ever before, in my opinion) become quite synonymous with the lowest-common-denominator Oscar fodder for Academy season. Save for last year’s CAROL, the firm has helped pump out exactly the films that scream family-friendly, voter-friendly content. With that out of the way, I should go on record and say that there is no way to talk about LION without delivering backhanded compliments. So here we go.
Tracing the true life tale of a five-year old Indian boy who falls asleep on a train, only to wake up thousands of kilometers away from home, viewers experience a rather shameful exploit of India and its exotic, dangerous terrain. But LION’s intentions are noble at heart. It shows how the titular boy (his name Saroo/Sheru is Lion in Hindi) struggles to survive on the streets of India, closely avoids danger and abuse, and ultimately finds himself in the hands of new parents in Australia. It tackles the notion of the white savior quite tastefully, and develops a rather complex, flawed protagonist in lead actor, Dev Patel. 80,000 children disappear in India each year (LION makes sure to remind us of this), and this is just one tragic story that happens to have a happy ending.
Kid gets lost in wilderness, tries to find his way home and mature into an adult:
It’s kind of like an urban JUNGLE BOOK
But for everything LION does right, it does something else wrong. The immediate flaw of note is that it’s endlessly sappy. Secondly, its photography plays out like gross exotification despite all of its neat visual flourishes (DP Greg Fraser also shot ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY and ZERO DARK THIRTY). Everything is presented as wild and foreign. While this does apply to the mindset of the little boy, it all feels rather appropriated for Western viewers (or Eastern, considering that this film is clearly geared towards Australians). The excessive orchestral score needlessly dramatizes sequences that are effective enough on their own. LION is constantly turned up to 11, working to channel the strongest emotional response from its audience. For me, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the Sia song that played over real-life footage in the end credits.
But putting its aesthetics aside for a minute, LION’s most difficult task is to tell its story without being too big for its britches. And frankly, it doesn’t succeed. Director Garth Davis clearly tries his best, but his film never surmounts the obstacle of feeling like two films that have been stitched together. On one hand we have a rip-roaring adventure through the slums of Calcutta starring the charming Sunny Pawar. But halfway into this film, Davis incorporates a 20-year jump, and Pawar grows up to be Dev Patel’s troubled protagonist. Patel’s role is charming and complex, and Nicole Kidman’s turn as his adoptive mother presents a deep emotional vulnerability. Rooney Mara’s performance as a love interest is needless at best and Patel’s subplot involving a troubled brother is interesting, but never expanded upon with enough depth. The real shame is that while the first half of the film is the most aesthetically thrilling, it is the second half that boasts all of the emotional depth. As such, LION feels like two incomplete films that have been joined at the hip.
Dev Patel in Slumdog Smog-Filled-Air
Had Davis opted to tell the entire film from the perspective of a 25 year-old Indian man living in Australia, he might have been onto something. During the film’s second half, Patel encounters brief flashbacks and dreams of his days as a child in India. Had the film flirted with this notion and never given us the kid-on-the-lam adventure of its first half, it would have had the necessary runtime to dig deeper into the psyche of adopted children. That way, Patel could have had a fleshed-out relationship with his troubled brother, and Rooney Mara would have been more than just a pretty face. As it stands now, LION’s second half hits all the necessary beats to satisfy the holes of the first half, but doesn’t satisfy any of the new one’s it creates. This also happens to be why I don’t blame Davis for his needlessly operatic score. The shell of his script is so big that the final product feels hollow. And as such, it’s been stuffed with every aesthetic detail to be a fully operational drama.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend