Garth Davis’s Lion feels like a debut film, not exactly on the count that it is in fact one such but since all he was known for prior was directing episodes of Top of the Lake together with a few television commercials, something quick were only set to come forward. With Lion he takes a powerful true story and the sort of mood it carries all throughout is not a particularly assuring one. On one hand you have what already is what you can recognize as material that could easily be so compelling and heartbreaking then suddenly said mood is gone creating a frustratingly disjointed product. Every awards season there’s a film with this sort of feeling that comes out, pertaining to how it seems only around to garner awards: Lion is arguably the biggest case scenario for 2016.
Based on the true story of Saroo Brierly, an Indian-Australian businessman who was separated from his family at the age of 5, Lion details a search for where he had come from now that he is a young man. While the story in itself is a powerful one there’s a mood that the film is creating as if it clearly wants to come around only to present nothing but a great sense of inspiration through a clear abundance of sentimentality when it comes to how certain sequences are handled: which contradicts the manner to which Lion starts off. I don’t mind the use of sentimentality when it comes to handling stories like this, but there’s a clear lack of focus coming aboard that leaves me at distance from where everything is set to go forward. And evidently, it’s only undermining the power of the true story it’s backed up on, which is never a good sign.
The first half of the movie is where the best moments of the film come by. We get to see Saroo as a young child, struggling to adapt to a new environment as he is unable to speak Bengali. The child performances in this segment of Lion are fantastic, for it feels that there is a level of authenticity coming in regarding how their helplessness inside of an overwhelming situation at this time of their lives, given how Garth Davis captures a certain claustrophobia the moment Saroo realizes that he is trapped on the train. As we explore the young Saroo’s life, all I could ever wonder was if the film were set to become more than what I initially had suspected, only to find that these qualities have since disappeared the moment Saroo is taken by an upper-class Australian family. From there onward, the division between Lion‘s own intentions becomes even clearer and it creates a disjointed sort of experience, which is rather unfitting for what sort of film this is.
Now that we have Saroo as a young man played by Dev Patel, there’s no doubt to the strength that he carries in this role. The problem that lies within the second half is when the film clearly is giving off a feeling it is trying too hard it ends up making certain scenes feel awkward in the worst sense. One of said scenes involves Nicole Kidman’s character (I can’t say much for Nicole Kidman’s performance here as a result of this one moment) saying that she felt better about herself adopting Saroo, and in the manner to which the film is directed, it leaves only a bitter taste in the mouth. The mood only finds itself gearing more to the saccharine side and Lion only finds itself falling apart because of how it seems to forget about the harrowing nature that was left behind in the first half. I was confused at first when it came to thinking about what Lion wanted to be but from that moment onward I could only think about what sort of attention it would receive afterwards.
The entire second half is just an unengaging story altogether, not only when compared to the harrowing nature created by the first. Oftentimes it draws itself upon long periods of inspirational cues only giving away a manipulative feeling. It’s a shame because Garth Davis clearly had an idea at first about the sort of struggle that Saroo would have experienced upon his separation from the people whom he loved, so why does he continue to undermine his story now that he is an adult? While Dev Patel is carrying so much weight upon his own shoulders, this sort of mood that Davis is aiming for does not fit the material and just overshadows what sort of power the story could ever contain. And given how frequently loads of these moments appear in Lion, it seems as if the impact which the first half had created is erased.
I don’t suppose I have ever found myself this on the fence when it comes to how a film based upon a true story is set to be handled. On one hand there was potential for something harrowing given how Garth Davis handles scenes that touch upon Saroo’s life as a child, having to fend for himself. On the other, what also comes by are typical of these sorts of “inspirational biopics” as favoured by awards ceremonies. When the two of them mix, what comes about is an experience so frustrating, not only because it isn’t what this story treatment had deserved, but also since it gives little meaning without that sort of context. Dev Patel keeps the film from being unwatchable, but the sugar that Lion flourishes itself within only goes off-putting in the worst sense possible. It makes what was a harrowing story something forgettable in the end.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via The Weinstein Company.
Directed by Garth Davis
Screenplay by Luke Davies, from the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly and Larry Buttrose
Produced by Iain Canning, Angie Fielder, Emile Sherman
Starring Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman
Release Year: 2016
Running Time: 118 minutes