Remember the days when Harvey Weinstein could take any movie and turn it into an Oscar sensation? After first appearing on Hollywood's radar during the Miramax days of the 1990s, when Weinstein pulled off major Oscar upsets with The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love, the powerful executive started his own studio (The Weinstein Company) and became an Oscar kingpin. He turned a potential Oscar also-ran like The King's Speech into a Best Picture winner, and he was thanked in more acceptance speeches than you can count. But in recent years, Weinstein has seemed to lose a bit of his awards season mojo. Despite strong performances from films like Silver Linings Playbook and The Imitation Game, studios like Fox Searchlight stole Harvey's thunder, and 2015 emerged as a frankly disastrous year for the company. Sure bets like The Hateful Eight and Carol totally missed with the Academy, and several others flat-out bombed.
Weinstein needed a good 2016, but this year was perhaps more cataclysmic that the last. It began with the botched release of Sing Street, one of my favorite movies of the year and a film that simply vanished upon arrival in April. It seems that Weinstein didn't know he had one of the year's biggest crowd-pleasers, and the film ended up bombing at the box office. The company later continually shifted Michael Keaton's The Founder around the release calendar, ruining any chance that the film could end up in Oscar contention. They also completely abandoned Gold, Matthew McConaughey's bid at another Oscar run. Harvey Weinstein decided to put all of his chips on Lion this year, Garth Davis' story of one man's journey to find his hometown in India. The film made quite a splash at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and despite so-so reviews, it's looking like a very solid Oscar contender.
And essentially, that's how the movie plays out. It's a very well done rendition of the classic Oscar tearjerker, bolstered by several terrific performances and a moving conclusion. While I do have a few problems with the way that the story is told and the basic structure of the film, there's no denying that Lion is visually stunning and emotionally resonant. It moves smoothly, spinning its narrative with a grace that overshadows some of the structural issues. And when you have two lead performances as good as those delivered by Dev Patel and Sunny Pawar, it's easy to get swept up in the story. Lion may not be quite as satisfying as some of the other Oscar favorites from this year, but it is nonetheless an incredibly effective piece of filmmaking.
Lion begins its story in the 1980s, where we find a young boy named Saroo (Pawar) and his brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). They're doing everything that they can to survive in harsh conditions, and they barely have enough food to survive. But along with their mother (Priyanka Bose), they clearly have a strong love for each other and their family as a whole. One day, Guddu goes off to do hard manual labor in the hopes of bringing the family some extra cash. Saroo desperately wants to go with him, but Guddu insists that he's just too young. He tells him to wait at a train station for him while he finds work, but things don't exactly work out well. Saroo wakes up on a bench at the station with Guddu nowhere to be found. After a terrifying voyage, Saroo ends up thousands of miles away from home on the dangerous streets of Calcutta. He dodges a few scary close calls before being adopted by an Australian family, giving him a chance for success in a new world.
John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) are loving, caring parents, and they are able to provide an excellent life for Saroo on the island of Tasmania. A year after Saroo's adoption, the Brierleys adopt Mantosh, another young boy from India with a tortured past. Things don't go quite as well this time around. But that doesn't stop Saroo from reaching his full potential- the film jumps 20 years into the future (2008) and we see Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) as a man, preparing to start his own career in hotel management. During his conference training, Saroo meets a beautiful young woman (Rooney Mara) and strikes up several friendships, putting him in good position for the future. But one day, Saroo is struck with an overwhelming urge to find his home. He devotes himself entirely to the idea of finding his long-lost mother and brother, using Google Earth to search through India. After years of a broken past, Saroo is finally close to discovering the answer to the fundamental question of his life.
Lion is a very good film. Really, it is. I can't imagine many people going to see this and disliking it. The film is straight-forward, powerful, and incredibly emotional. There will be plenty of tears in the audience by the time it's all said and done. So if I seem to be overly critical of Lion over the course of the next few paragraphs, just know that I did enjoy myself quite a bit and that everything will end on a positive note. But as solid as this film is, I'm unable to shake the idea that it could have somehow been done in a better, more fulfilling way. In its current state, Lion plays out exactly as I listed above. It's a two hour film, with the first half chronicling the scary journey that young Saroo suffers through, and the second half tackling adult Saroo's exploration of his past life. Now, there are quite a few benefits to this basic structure. The scenes with young Saroo are explosive and powerful, mostly thanks to the understated direction of Davis and the spectacular turn by Pawar. They have an undeniable impact, and they have been the recipient of much praise from critics.
However, the problem arises in the second half of the film. Dev Patel keeps things afloat just by the sheer force of his screen presence, but we don't quite know enough about Saroo to emotionally connect with his character. Imagine if Moonlight was split into two sections, and the entire middle chunk that deals with Chiron's experiences as a teenager vanished. Imagine if we simply jumped from young Chiron first inquiring about his sexuality to older, world weary Chiron. That would be a huge gap and we really wouldn't know enough to understand the character entirely. I feel like that's the biggest misfire with Lion. There's too much time between Saroo's adoption by the Brierleys and his revelation as a young man. In the movie, Saroo begins his odyssey of discovery when he sees a dessert that he always wanted as a kid in India. We see him for a few scenes as a charismatic young guy, and then the film pulls a 180 on us that feels slightly forced and unrealistic.
Saroo must have struggled throughout his entire life with the ultimate fate of his family back in India. That is a burden that would weigh heavy on anyone's shoulders. I just wish we saw some of that in the film. Instead, we get a quick introduction to his adult personality, a brief trigger moment, and then he descends into the life of a hermit in the pursuit of his old family. I don't think his behaviors are rash or unreasonable, but I wish we got more of his intrinsic motivation as that desire grew throughout his entire life. I'm not necessarily one to promote the use of flashbacks in a film, but in the case of Lion, a complete shakeup of the story structure would probably have been to everyone's benefit. If the audience was allowed to deeper understand the character of adult Saroo, maybe even seeing this discontent with his past formulate over time, then the movie reaches an entirely different level of effectiveness. The stuff with young Saroo is great, but the structure does not serve the story arc of the film at large.
Nonetheless, in the grand scheme of things, I can't imagine too many audience members getting caught up on these issues. Lion is a film brimming with beauty, filled with performances that will bring a tear to your eye. I can't say enough good things about Sunny Pawar, who brings a depth and determination to his character. Young Saroo doesn't say much during the course of his lengthy, traumatic journey, but you can always see the pain and the constant thinking just from looking in his eyes. Pawar is matched (but not surpassed) by Patel, who mixes his movie star charm with a healthy dose of heartache. The older version of Saroo is an underwritten character, but Patel somehow manages to turn him into a fascinating, sympathetic individual. I was also incredibly impressed by Nicole Kidman's supporting turn- she has one "Oscar moment" that works as a total knockout.
While the performances take the spotlight, Garth Davis' direction is still fluid and evocative, capturing the gorgeous vistas and the subtle horrors of Saroo's journey. And in addition, the score, cinematography, and design elements are all pitch-perfect. Ultimately, while there are a few major areas of improvement, Lion is a striking, powerful film. If you're not moved by the conclusion, then I don't know what to tell you. It's not going to be an enduring classic like La La Land or Moonlight, but in the realm of an Oscar season that has been scattershot at best, some cinematic comfort food like Lion hits the spot.
THE FINAL GRADE: B (7.4/10)
Images courtesy of The Weinstein Company