LION (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic material, language, and some sensuality)
Released:  November 25, 2016 limited; December 25 wide
Runtime: 118 minutes
Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar, Priyanka Bose, David Wenham

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Indie movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has an Oscar touch. He’s been winning Best Picture Academy Awards since his Miramax days (and nominated for a slew of others), and has continued to do so with his brother at their self-named company. Notorious for promoting multiple films during each awards season, Weinstein has gone all-in on one in 2016: Lion.

It’s easy to see why. This stirring heart-grabber has Oscar-bait written all over it. Yet it also plays better, less cynically, and (for the most part) more sincerely than that. It even takes some risks, particularly in the first hour.

Based on the true story of a young Indian boy separated from his mother at age 5 (who’d go on to search for her at age 25), director Garth Davis (in his debut) never tries to crassly manipulate tears from our ducts. The emotions you’ll feel are earned, whether they’re merely warm fuzzies or ones that actually induce a steady stream of salt water from your eyes. Grown men have been crying at film festival screenings. You’ve been warned (or sold, as the case may be).

Lion is told in two parts; a young boy lost, and a young man looking. The first hour focuses on the series of tragically unfortunate events that caused Saroo Brierley to be transported nearly a thousand miles from his home (and mother) at the age of five, how he survived, and where he eventually ended up. As a narrative it has a nicely patient progression, told through an arc of moments rather than a familiar plot structure.

Davis doesn’t cut corners for English audiences. The first half of his film is subtitled, spoken in native Indian dialects, and a white person doesn’t appear on-screen until about fifty minutes in. The whole stretch works like a silent movie in a lot of ways, largely a visual and experiential narrative, not driven by dialogue or exposition. You’re just thrown into it all, like little Saroo is.

It’s fascinating, too; sort of an Oliver Twist on the streets of Calcutta. It doesn’t necessarily need to go on for as long as it does, but the deliberation of this boy’s journey certainly helps to magnify it. Maternal hearts will be kicked into anxiety overdrive, not only for little Saroo but also for the countless other kids like him (that we see) who live and sleep on the streets.

As if that won’t be wrenching enough for tender-hearted moms, then comes hour two when he’s adopted.

Through an agency, Saroo becomes the son of a couple in Australia, where he’s brought and raised. Nicole Kidman plays the mother, in a notably unglamorous wig, and in hour two the story jumps ahead twenty years to see Saroo now grown (played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel). He still wonders about his birth mother, and how heartbroken she still might be over his vanishing from the face of her earth.

Before Saroo goes on his quest to seek her out, Davis lets us spend some time with Saroo, his Australian parents, and his adopted brother. It’s a worthy focus, in part because it’s not entirely necessary, but one that adoptive families in particular will appreciate. It shows, with real honesty, that while adoption is very beautiful it can also be very very difficult.

For some kids, there are scars too deep for one family to heal, no matter how open and available love is in the home. It’s an aspect of adoption that needs to be portrayed more often, especially with the empathy and compassion shown here. For any person who wonders if a parent could love an adopted child as intensely as a biological one, Lion should help dispel that false assumption.

Once the story shifts into its climactic drive, Lion becomes increasingly more conventional, at times even cutting corners a bit too quickly. It also loses some of its veracity by playing up Patel’s rugged, smoldering sexiness; he seems perpetually ready for a GAP photo shoot.

Still, consistent with the first-rate ensemble, Patel invests himself deeply into the conflicted psyche of Saroo, and Rooney Mara plays a girlfriend that grows to become his conscience (she even laughs, a rarity for the habitually shy and mannered actress). Kidman stands out in a way she hasn’t in years (since 2010’s criminally underseen Rabbit Hole, to be precise, her best perf to date), and one scene in particular should land her an Oscar nod.

As the film progresses, a sense of inevitability permeates; it undercuts tension and drama just a bit, even though the personal stakes couldn’t be higher. Still, as the inevitable approaches, the raw emotion of it all really catches you, and makes its impact. It’s a beautiful thing.

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