Finally, I saw this movie. Back in December, I had heard about the “Google Earth true story” and that’s what I knew it as for a long while. And that Dev Patel was in it. Well, thankfully, I walked into this film with a very basic understanding of its plot because it allowed me to enjoy and discover the plot as it unfolded before my eyes. This is a movie that does just that for its entire runtime. It never tells you how to feel either; everything just naturally occurs and no reaction is spoon-fed through the use of music cues or melodramatic close ups.
What is Lion about? Well, it concerns the very true story involving a young Indian boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and one unfortunate mistake that leads him to change the entire course of his life. Saroo and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) are collecting coal for their illiterate mother so that they can exchange it for milk. They are living in total squalor. One day, Guddu tells his young brother to stay put so that he can go seek out some possible work to make them more money. However, when Saroo wakes up, his brother is still not back yet. As he awaits on a nearby train, he wakes up to the movement along the rails and soon finds himself approximately 1600 km from home. After succumbing himself to several obstacles along the way, Saroo soon finds himself in the hands of an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman & David Wenham). Years later, something is missing. Saroo, who is now an adult (Dev Patel), suddenly decides that his life can not truly be complete until he finds his family again.
First, let’s talk about Dev Patel. Here is an actor that has been through the ringer in Hollywood. He has had some lows in his life. Following his star-making performance and debut in Slumdog Millionaire with a role in the box office and critical disaster The Last Airbender was not the wisest choice but thankfully he’s rebounded with great performances in good films thanks to his abilities as an actor and his unwillingness to be pigeon-holed in any kind of stereotypical role. Here he takes the adult form of Saroo and creates a character who holds a lot on the inside due to his terrifying past. You see his friendly exterior combined with the hurt in his eyes and it really drives the film forward. Not to be outdone, Sunny Pawar plays the younger version of Saroo and does a fantastic job, especially for someone that is eight years old and has barely made a splash onto the scene with his film work thus far. There is a scene involving a “nice man” who is seemingly way too touchy-feely and who we later discover is probably working in the sex trafficking business with relation to minors. In this particular scene, Sunny underplays his nervous attitude around the man while trying to figure out what is going on around him at the same time. The film never flat-out tells us any of this information so it must all be conveyed through the subtle dialogue and the body language of the performers.
Though they are given less to do, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham are very good as Saroo’s Australian parents. Kidman is given the most to do between the two of them at least emotionally but both actors are solid. Rooney Mara also shows up as a love interest but I didn’t really find her character to be that interesting. She turned in a fine performance as does everyone in the movie but she doesn’t really have much else to do other than stand around and act supportive.
The cinematography in the film is wonderful and almost acts as a character all on its own. The desolate surroundings in the slums of India at the beginning of the film feel hopeless much like how Saroo’s journey begins. The first half of the film that takes place in this location chronicles his life as a child and is almost Dickensian in its approach. We see him move from area to area and while he’s constantly ending up somewhere new, it just feels like he’s stuck going in circles and making no progress in his journey. The Australian landscape is also quite beautiful and a stark contrast from the slums where the film has us start things off. The camera work is so wonderful throughout the whole movie that nothing feels manufactured. Everything seems naturally occurring and happening just because of the situation and just to further the plot, which is the difference between a good movie and a great one.
There are a few flaws but they are miniscule. I felt like the first half of the movie was almost impossible to follow up because it was so strong and so incredibly moving. The rest of the film is also quite good but scenes involving Patel brooding in front of a computer and clicking through Google Earth just can’t hold a candle to young Saroo’s hopeless journey. There was also a bit of a lull in the middle of the movie but that’s to be expected during the transitional scenes between both halves of the film. The movie also does this slightly annoying new trend that movies based on true stories have been doing lately in combining footage of the real people with the actors in the movie. Here, it does a solid job at tugging on the heartstrings but I am just starting to tire of it as a trope in general. Those are very minor flaws but they do keep this from being a perfect film.
Otherwise, I can’t recommend this one enough. Go seek it out if you can and if not, it should find its way on DVD and/or Blu-Ray soon enough.
RATING: **** ½
Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)
* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)