Lion has been through a bit of an identity crisis. The film, based off of the non-fiction book A Long Way Home, has been referred to by both titles in advertisements. Both are a bit vague and unnecessary though. A better title for the film would be Google Earth: The Movie.
For consistencies sake however, we’ll refer to the film as Lion. Lion is an uplifting story in a clichéd body. The story takes place in two acts: Lost & Found. The first hour of the movie features a young Indian boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who gets transporting away from home and lost in the streets of Calcutta. After being adopted by an Austrailian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), the second hour features a much older Saroo (Dev Patel) becoming obsessed with Google Earth and alienating his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) in order to find where he got lost from.
Lion is the feature film debut of commercial director Garth Davis, and while it’s an impressive debut, it’s a little surprising that this is the movie the Weinstein Company is pushing forward for the awards season. The story it’s based on is very intriguing, but the film mostly seems like the CliffNotes from the book.
The movie feels like a trailer for a much larger film. Featuring a continuous supply of fades and jump cuts, the story feels more like a montage that never ends. I kept waiting for the camera to settle in and just let the image be, but this Lion is restless. The result is that the emotions and heart of Lion seem missing. It seems as though the film was jumping through all the narrative hoops without trying to find the centralized focus.
Many of the individual scenes are powerful, but they seem so decontextualized. I couldn’t help but think how much I’d like to see them placed in a real, full movie. Lion jumps through time haphazardly, so that you wouldn’t really know where or when you are if it weren’t for the intertitles. At best, the story seems stilted. At worst, major plot points get convoluted by the audience not having a concept of how much time has passed.
Dev Patel is charismatic as the older version of Saroo, but it’s a tough character to play. He has to embody the spirit of the 5-year-old that the audience has just spent an hour with, while also seeming like an adult version with vastly different experiences. Patel does a great job on his own, but I’m not sure how well the two acts connect. Sunny Pawar has the advantage of setting the standard for who Saroo is, and he’s really the star of the film. With nearly no dialogue save a few words, Pawar displays a wide range of emotions that would be impressive for anyone, let alone such a young child.
Rooney Mara’s character is supposedly a conglomeration of Saroo’s girlfriends during his search, and it shows. Her character doesn’t have much of anything to do, and Mara is woefully underused. Nicole Kidman, however, takes a small and simple role, injecting it with so much depth. Lion discards many of the angles you’d expect the adopted mother to have in the film, but Kidman is still able to grab the audience’s attention any time she is on screen.
The linearness of the structure wins points for its simplicity, but can’t shake off the feeling of missed opportunity. The two stories don’t juxtapose each other in the way you’d expect, and so the movie’s drive doesn’t build in the way it needs to. The climax of the movie becomes an older Saroo frantically scanning Google Earth, and the external payoff just doesn’t seem significant.
After the secret meaning of the title Lion is revealed, the movie takes an impassioned stand on behalf of the 80,000 children that go missing in India every year. This would be very commendable, if it didn’t seem so much like an afterthought. Not to mention that the film goes out of its way to villainize another adopted Indian child. If you visit the website, all the movie does is list charities. It’s not a bad thing, but perhaps the least amount of effort the movie could have put in. It seems a bit dishonest and self-righteous because this cause isn’t really what the movie was about. Oh well. I guess I can’t blame the movie for not being a documentary.
The cinematography (excluding all of the shots of blurry 2008 Google Earth) is gorgeous, and the story is plenty uplifting. The movie isn’t hard to watch, but it feels like there is a hole at the center. Just because several angles are available, doesn’t mean they all have to be used. Perhaps this is just the result of Davis’s experience making commercials.
Interestingly enough, Lion’s naming crisis mirrors the experience of its main character. If you’re confused, at least it won’t take nearly as much googling to figure it out.