Potential is a strange thing when it comes to cinema. Sometimes what you come to expect from a film is not the same thing as what you hope it will end up being, and sometimes the seeming promise of a film exceeding your expectations is dashed by as inevitable a decline as you had predicted. Enter Lion, based on the memoir A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley. Because of the source material, it was easy to predict where exactly this film would go wrong, which is a shame considering just how much it does right throughout the first act.
The film opens on India in the late 1980s, where a six-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives with his impoverished family and helps his brother gather coal for sale. One night he becomes separated from his brother and becomes trapped on a train that brings him to Kolkata, where he doesn’t speak the language and is unable to communicate the name of his hometown. This is where the film absolutely shines, as the first act relies on non-verbal cues and interpretations from Pawar in a shockingly strong performance from such a young actor. Lion excels in showing hardship rather than telling us via dialogue or voiceover narration that Saroo’s life is terrifying and anxious.
Surprisingly enough, the film retains that level of non-verbal sophistication into the second act, where Saroo is adopted by an Australian family after Indian authorities are unable to find his parents. A few short scenes show his adjustment to privileged Australian life and the introduction of an adopted brother who has a harder time adjusting to his new family and culture, and then the film jumps 20 years later to Saroo as an adult (Dev Patel). This is where things start to fall apart.
See, from a biographical standpoint, the interesting thing about Saroo’s story is that he used the then-new invention of Google Earth to systematically track down his home village over a period of years, making his return home a triumph of perseverance and familial bonds. However, in a film, you can’t just have a person sit in front of the computer for hours on end; there (supposedly) needs to be some sort of external conflict in order to keep the audience’s interest. So Lion manufactures drama that doesn’t really matter and ultimately seems to exist only to justify the named talent lending their time to the production. Saroo’s search causes tension with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) because… reasons. Saroo becomes distant from his adoptive mother and contributes to her declining mental health because Nicole Kidman needs to exposit her backstory in an Oscar-baiting monologue. Saroo’s brother (Divian Ladwa) is a source of family strife and conflict because we apparently “needed” a reflection of the person that Saroo could have become. It all comes across as ingenuine and forced, particularly if you know the details of Saroo’s actual journey and can pinpoint exactly where the film is fabricating tension from half-truths and factual inaccuracies. This isn’t to say that a fictionalized account of actual events isn’t allowed to take liberties, but the liberties Lion takes are transparently contrived.
This film is The Weinstein Company’s big Oscar contender this year, and it’s remarkable that it is as restrained an affair as it is. It’s light on the whimsy, features no voiceover monologues or framing devices, and conveys much of its tension naturalistically and without exposition. However, it suffers from a tedious second half that blatantly trades on what it expects Academy voters to feel drawn toward, including facetious interpersonal conflict and a protagonist haunted by literal ghosts of his lost family. Overall, the film functions well enough and its finale provides the feel-good catharsis that audiences will be looking for, but it just can’t live up to the potential that the first act hinted at.