The end of the year is a time for “based on a true story” weepies designed to keep the Kleenex industry in business and gobble up easy award nominations. Most of them stink and work only on the easily manipulated and/or Oscar voters. However, a few transcend all the aggressive heartstring tugging because they’re special stories worth telling and earn every single tear that they suck out of eyeballs. ‘Lion’ is one of the special cases.
It’s not a perfect movie and the most heartless of cynics will find ways to scoff it off. However, for those who are capable of opening their hearts even a little bit while colorful images flicker across the big screen, ‘Lion’ will cause devastation and elation. It’s a beautiful little story, despite some issues.
The film is divided into two halves with the first better than the second. We start in rural India, years ago. Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a content young boy born to an impoverished mother (Priyanka Bose) who works backbreaking labor to support her little family. One day, Saroo forces his brother out of bed in the middle of the night to look for work. They tucker themselves out by a train station and the boy wakes up early the next morning without his brother in sight. He climbs a train in an attempt to find him and is then trapped inside as the train takes him miles away from home and into Calcutta. He’s never been in a city before and doesn’t even speak the local language, and is forced into a series of increasingly desperate and even frightening situations.
This half of ‘Lion’ is rather extraordinary. It unfolds with a sense of childlike imagination, fear and panic. Young actor Sunny Pawar is a remarkable find incapable of a false note, and first-time British filmmaker Garth Davis takes him on an unexpected and rivetingly intense journey filled with traps and pitfalls. The camera cleverly stays at the boy’s lowered eyeline for the most part to exaggerate the scale of the vast world around him. It’s a fascinating and dark vision of India, but thankfully doesn’t feel like outsiders exploiting foreign surroundings. A sense of rambunctious energy and life is palpable, exciting and a little frightening.
Then the second half starts. Saroo eventually finds himself in an overcrowded orphanage and is adopted by a kindly Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). They also adopt a far more troubled boy from India to be his brother. We then flash ahead to Saroo at college age, played by Dev Patel. He’s grown up happy even though the same fate didn’t befall his now alcoholic adoptive brother who never got over unstated childhood abuse. Saroo heads off to school for hotel management and falls in love with a particularly radiant Rooney Mara. One night, he attends an Indian feast of a college party and all the memories of his lost childhood come rushing back. Soon, Saroo is obsessed with tracking down his home and finding the mother he lost so many years ago. He scours Google Maps endlessly, grows the required crazy long hair and beard, drops out of school, stops speaking to his adoptive parents, and searches for a way back to the home he forgot.
This section of the movie is a bit rockier. Despite the factual basis, Davis dips a little into melodrama to play out all the tricky emotions of a feature-length story condensed to an hour. The adopted brother character feels a little cartoonish in limited screen time. Some clunky bits of dialogue introduce Google Maps to the story. Mara sadly doesn’t get much of a character to play and the film gets emotionally manipulative in a manner that the opening half so skillfully avoided.
Thankfully, it still works. Patel is absolutely fantastic, devolving from his usual charming screen persona to a shell of a man driven by compulsive obsession. He and Mara share terrific chemistry, and she at least has tricky emotions to play through her fairly undefined character. Nicole Kidman is also excellent as a loving mother forced to grieve in ways she never could have anticipated. The movie bounces along at a relentless pace and the final emotional crescendo is so damn strong that it’s easy to forget the missteps required to get there.
‘Lion’ is a particular type of inspirational melodrama that won’t appeal to everyone. However, those saps who love to cry through Oscar bait will eat this movie up and get moved in a variety of intense ways. Garth Davis constructs his debut feature with some extraordinary visuals and an emotional rollercoaster that pays off in all the right ways. It’s a beautifully sappy movie, but a sappy one nonetheless. That’s just the nature of the story. This sort of thing would be tough to believe if wholly scripted, yet can smooth over those rough patches by coming directly from life. It’s big, bold, rousing, inspiring and crowd-pleasing stuff that could well become a surprise hit if the word gets out, the nominations pile up, and it stays in theaters long enough. Don’t be surprised if that happens. Be even less surprised if you emerge from the theater a sniffling, slobbering emotional wreck.