Before I start, I’d like some expert assistance in solving the riddle of why Dev Patel, who portrays an adult version of what’s obviously the main character in Garth Davis’ Lion, is categorized as a Supporting Actor by the Oscar voters this year. If it is because he only portrays Saroo Brierly (a real person with a very real and interesting backstory, I might add) for the latter half of the film, I’d still say it’s a leap to call it anything but a leading role. Maybe if the Best Actor nomination had gone to his counterpart, Sunny Pawar, but the real reason is probably that the slot was already occupied by La La Land.
I often say that among the movies I most enjoy are the ones where I can barely understand how they were made. But this isn’t always with regards to the special effects of 2001, The Abyss and the original Star Wars or the camera work in Anomalisa, which seems too good to be feasible in a stop-motion animation. Sometimes it’s with regards to how actors, especially child actors, can create such perfectly realized human beings and how a director, especially as his debut film, can do such a moving true story justice.
The story begins somewhere in 1980’s India, in a village referred to by a young Saroo as “Ginestaly”. Saroo comes from a seemingly poor family, living with his illiterate mother and big brother Guddu, lifting around rocks for most of the day. Following Guddu to one of his night shifts, in spite of the older sibling’s warnings, Saroo ends up falling asleep at a train station, with his brother nowhere to be seen when he wakes. Not shortly after he becomes trapped on a deadheading train and, after several days, finds himself in Calcutta (at a time where people in that region spoke Bengali, an unknown language to Saroo) and, after several months more, is taken to an orphanage run by Mrs. Sood (Depti Naval). This provides a hope spot after a sequence of truly nightmarish yet relatable events.
After fruitless attempts from authorities to work out where Saroo came from, he ends up in the care of an Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierly (David Wenham), along with a mentally broken step-brother named Mantosh. As 20 years pass, Saroo has grown into Dev Patel, and is moving to Melbourne to study hotel managment. He makes good friends and falls in love with an American student named Lucy (Rooney Mara), but as memories from his lost home begin to creep up on him, he starts to wonder, and eventually his mind becomes set on one thing.
As you may have inferred, there are a number of seemingly abrupt time skips in the film. However, unlike in, let’s say, a movie like Fant4stic, the time skips in this film don’t cheat you on anything that you cannot read from the characters’ behavior and interactions. When 20 years have passed and Saroo sits to eat dinner with his aging parents the day before moving, we can understand their history and the life they’ve lived just by observing them. There is some brief expository dialogue as well, so don’t worry if it sounds all too subtle or difficult.
It’s been said before, and it’s worth repeating, that this is a film that moves you no matter where you are or where your home is. That said, I theorize that audiences in India will appreciate some of the references to their culture a little extra. The scene where Saroo and Lucy flirt for the first time has the music and quirkiness of a Bollywood film, but with the realism of the rest of the movie intact.
My biggest problem with the film is probably that Rooney Mara isn’t being used to her full potential and that a few costume choices aren’t especially convincing – including Nicole Kidman’s hair and a few pieces of jarring old-age makeup. I wonder why it’s only Swedish movies that seem to have this one down at the Oscars every year.
Lion is even still a genuinely outstanding piece of filmmaking. All the Oscar nominations for its performers are warranted, its music is wonderful, and the camera work does the well-selected locations justice. At times it gets heavy-handed and maybe even a little bit slow (watching Saroo try to figure out from where the train first took off all those years ago via Google Maps is only interesting for so long), but it hits you where it feels all the same and is a thorougly impressive watch. It is as sad as it is happy and as sweet as it is heartbreaking. I dare say, if it didn’t play a “Spotify’s Top 10” song over the credits I might have been even more enthusiastic.
I’m giving Lion a 4.5/5 and special kudos to Garth Davis for such a strong first outing. Be sure to watch it soon, and bring a few tissues.