21 December, 2016

"Lion" Review (***½)

Editor's note: I've been begging Alexandra James to write for Reel Georgia for months and months. Recently, Alex joined the team down at the Savannah Film Festival for a few days and I was able to coax her into finally writing a review. I think you'll find that both the writer and her work are equally as charismatic and approachable as they are thorough and accomplished. I am thrilled to add Alex to the Reel crew. -CM

Dev Patel stars in "Lion."

Familiar themes of displacement, familial dysfunction, a desire for resolve, and great cast performances all help Garth Davis’ debut feature film, "Lion," evoke all the feels at all the right times. "Lion" is a poignant drama that takes viewers on a laborious personal journey that, fortunately, lands in inspiration and the aforementioned resolve. Though the film successfully plays on its viewers’ emotions, it does have its shortcomings in other areas. Are these shortcomings so prominent that they distract from the truly remarkable story that the film is based on? Nah. But they are shortcomings that keep this good film from reaching the status of excellency that it seems right on the cusp of.

Based on a true story, the film introduces us to a young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) collecting items along train tracks that they eventually trade for milk to supplement their small family which consists of them, their mother (Priyanka Bose), and their baby sister. From the jump, the love between the brothers is apparent and worthy of an emotional investment from the viewers. This is due most definitely to the amazing chemistry between the two young actors and their raw performances that make each moment we’re with them feel genuine and precious—as if once the cameras stop rolling, the chemistry persists. The gently protective older Guddu and the younger Saroo, wide-eyed with fascination for his older brother, is a dynamic that viewers grow to appreciate and find comfort in within the first ten minutes of the film.

This comfort is diminished, however, during the pivotal series of scenes that leads to the separation of Saroo and Guddu. A separation that changes the course of the film and Saroo’s life as he (and the film’s viewers) knew it. In perhaps one of the most anxiety inducing sequences I’ve seen, viewers are thrown into the panicked mindset of young Saroo as he wakes up on what was originally an idle train, now moving at full speed—his lethargy quickly shifting into a full-on frenzied state. From an anxiety-ridden train ride to a bustling train station in Kolkata where he doesn’t speak the native language, Saroo’s helplessness is unbearable and most certainly felt. Saroo goes through a series of struggles and close calls (two of those with apparent recruiters for some sort of child labor ring), when he finally catches the attention of a young man who happens to have a connection to an orphanage that actively places lost or abandoned children with families from all over the world. From the orphanage, Saroo is sent to Australia and is welcomed eagerly by his new adoptive parents Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierly.

We honestly don’t see much of Kidman and Wenham, but when we do, Kidman’s performances are impactful and meaningful—aiding Saroo’s story and leaving more than enough room for Dev Patel to to take the lead and really show his dramatic acting chops (which were real good). The family dynamic between Saroo and his adoptive parents isn’t nearly as engaging as the one between his biological mother and brother. Saroo and Sue do share a beautiful moment when he reveals to Sue that although he is in search of his birthplace and family, he recognizes Sue is a vital part of his life. Aww. But as mentioned before, Patel’s interaction with Kidman and Wenham are pretty minor in the large scope of things. These interactions prove to be important to the course of the film, but are minor nonetheless.

While we don’t get to extensively see the ins and outs of the relationship between Saroo and his adoptive parents, their moments together never seem particularly rushed or poorly strewn together (even amongst multiple time lapses), it just seems that we get a glimpse of them when we need to—which works.

Rooney Mara and Dev Patel play Lucy and Saroo, respectively.
I can’t comfortably say the same for Saroo’s relationship with his love interest Lucy (Rooney Mara). Their flirtatious banter, and loving smirks in the beginning stages of their relationship are great and super authentic. But, this authenticity is tried as time goes on and we see less full scenes of the two—only getting snippets into key moments of intimacy, what feels like a sudden break up, and a vague reconnection. Again, this leaves room for Saroo’s search for his birthplace to take precedence in the film, which is good, but it also makes the supporting roles (such as Mara’s) and their stories seem half-baked and void of significant depth.

Unfortunately, this is not the only place where the story feels rushed and falls short of my expectations. Saroo’s actual search for his home, which was shown through a series of flashbacks, close up google earth searches, and a frustrated Patel jamming pins into a wall map was anticlimactic to say the least and didn’t give me as much satisfaction as I needed. While I get that Saroo’s search was one done mostly from Australia and not a good old fashion retracing-of-steps discovery, the search still had the potential to be fulfilling, but wasn’t. In fact, when Saroo suddenly finds his home in a final google earth search scene (and realizes that he’d had the name of his town wrong the whole time!), I narrowed my eyes in disbelief. ‘No….that can’t be it….there’s got to be more obstacles….is that it? Oh. So that is it…OK.’ With the film being based on a true story, I’m sure that this is, in fact, how the quest panned out. It just doesn’t translate as a super exciting pursuit onscreen.

While at times predictable, and other times ostensibly lacking in depth, the solid performances and super heartwarming ending make this film pretty good and save it from being just another eye-roll worthy tearjerker. The fact is—the beginning of the film with Sunny Pawar’s fantastic performance as young Saroo, the intensity Dev Patel brings to his performance as older Saroo, and the unique story of real life Saroo Brierly, all truly saved this film for me and are the main reasons I would cite when telling people to give the film a watch. Would it have been nice to have it exceed the usual ‘based on a true story’ film formula? Of course. But the film does a great job nonetheless of highlighting a truly exceptional story with and exceptional cast to match.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

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