There’s always a certain sense of duality that is at play in storytelling at its rawest levels. With festival darling Lion rolling out in a limited release today we really get the story of two films. One; a compelling and heartbreaking story of loss and neglect in a system that just isn’t built to provide any real help and Two; a Hallmark movie of the week that gets dragged down by clichéd storytelling and weak direction.
A tragic tale, Lion sees a young five year old boy get lost at a busy train station while helping his older brother look for work and sees him inadvertently get flung to the other side of the country in a decommissioned train to one of the most crowded cities of the world in Calcutta. It’s a place where he doesn’t speak the language and there is truly danger at every turn. He finds his way to an orphanage where he ultimately gets adopted by a loving family in Australia who give him all the opportunities he could have never dreamed of. However 25 years later, with his entire life in front of him he becomes consumed with the haunting visions of his former life that never left him all these years. This leads him to begin a quest to ultimately find where he truly came from and give him the peace that he needs to be able to move forward.
With director Garth Davis hoping into the feature director chair, truly does start out with a brilliant degree of electricity as we watch this young boy navigate a situation that tears him from the comfort of his home and could have easily gotten him killed but ultimately fizzles out as a weak script and a leading performance from Dev Patel which goes a little too overboard and never effectively sells the emotional distress of being a man without any genuine sense of his original roots.
Adapted from the novel by Saroo Brierley called “A Long Way Home”, these trials of young Saroo played quite well by Sunny Pawar in his very first film is absolutely electric. Davis makes the world around him seem so massive and confusing that you can’t help but scared and root for this young kid as he has to find his way around Calcutta with the ugly trappings of any major city looking for him at every single tour. It comes across as a gargantuan and nearly impossible journey for this kid and the visuals along with the performances sell it so well that we he finally finds the orphanage we’ve forgotten that he can’t find his home, and we are just overjoyed that he’s finally out of danger.
However it’s the move to Australia that marks a severe downturn in the quality of this storytelling. David Wenham and Nicole Kidman in a horrible dowdy middle class wig or haircut do what they can, but are forced with rolling through the emotional stereotypes of this young boy having to accept his new situation. Sure it’s heartbreaking, but as logic viewers we know that this kid just didn’t have any other choice.
When it ultimately fast forwards and we see Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) getting ready to go to university, he’s a well adjusted young man with a bright future ahead of him. As his life away from home begins to expand his world views, including falling in love with exchange student Lucy (Rooney Mara) it feels like everything is going gangbusters but the doubt in his spirit is unavoidable. He loves his adopted family, he loves his life but he can’t shake not knowing what happened and the guilt of the aftermath that his disappearance must have caused. Patel certainly tries his best but so much of his performance was just a little too far out of his wheel house and you could feel him trying to emote his way towards the end of the script. It’s obviously a compelling story, but that is quite often never enough as weak dialogue and poor direction just take this into your standard dysfunctional family drama and while we can understand Saroo’s motivations it never takes us anywhere that was emotionally believable. Kidman is a fine actress but never believable transforms into this character while David Wenham and the usually dynamic Rooney Mara just didn’t have all that much to work with.
At the end of the day, Lion is masquerading as Awards Season bait because while it shows some flashes of genuine promise, it devolves into a fairly standard and boring affair as Saroo’s compelling true story never quite got the actors and the storytellers it so truly deserved.