LION: True-Story Oscar Bait That Fails To Roar
Though its feel-good sentiments are hard to resist, there are simply too many tonal and structural issues that hold LION back from greatness.
The premise of Lion sounds interesting: a heartfelt true story about a lost boy reuniting with his family twenty five years after their separation. Throw in an intriguing ‘exotic’ culture, and you’ve got yourself some Oscar bait. However, the many flaws of Lion overshadow its few strengths, resulting in a disjointed film that’s uneven in both tone and quality.
An Indian boy gets lost on a train, loses his family, and ends up adopted by an Australian family. Years later he uses the power of Google Earth to find his hometown and reunite with his family. Director Garth Davis’ first film is based on Saroo Brierley’s auto-biographical novel, A Long Way Home, which was adapted into a screenplay by Luke Davies.
Lion’s main fault is that Saroo’s story is told in two different time periods with different actors, and with sub-narratives that are of varying levels of audience interest.
The first half of the film explains how young Saroo ended up separated from his family and roaming the streets of India. Charismatic and talented eight year old Sunny Pawar is constantly watchable, hitting comic beats, and evoking pathos in equal measure. As he copes with exploitation and poverty, the high-stakes nature of his predicament makes for engaging viewing, as audiences feel concern for his well-being.
In contrast, adult Saroo’s narrative is simply boring. The plot directs him to travel to Melbourne to study ‘hotel school,’ yet that idea is never addressed again. He meets his Lucy (Rooney Mara) and in literally the next scene they are a longterm couple. Without getting to know more about older Saroo (Dev Patel), we are thrust into a narrative where we are supposed to sympathize with his feelings of disconnectedness.
Davis’ attempts to illustrate Saroo’s cultural confusion is heavy-handed. In one scene, he doesn’t know the correct way to eat Indian food. In another, he’s interrogated about which team, Indian or Australian, he cheers for in cricket and admits to being severed from Indian culture. Similarly, his feelings of guilt and longing are reduced to repetitive flashbacks as he daydreams of his family. It’s not exactly subtle, and detracts from the emotional authenticity of the narrative.
Dev Patel’s a fine actor, but is hindered by poor writing. In the one emotional scene where Saroo confesses the extent of his guilt and sorrow, the insincere dialogue turns the scene from affecting to melodramatic.
I don’t envy Garth Davis’ position of making a hunt through Google Earth exciting. Monotonous time-consuming quests for information are hardly pinnacles of cinematic suspense. However, some films, like the brilliant Spotlight, can pull it off. This film does not.
The Biopic Problem
Lion falls victim to the biopic problem. A big issue with based-on-true-story films, is the need for the films to accurately reflect the true story. The truth isn’t always cinematic.
Was there a girlfriend that inspired Saroo to find his family? Yes. Her name was Lisa, not Lucy, and her encouragement and fast internet connection motivated Saroo to pursue his search. However, Rooney Mara’s character serves no narrative function. She’s an underwritten character who doesn’t need to be there.
If this story was a romance, which it’s not, she would have served as a central character. However, that’s not the story being told, and writer/adaptor Luke Davies has settled on an awkward supporting role in which she’s unimportant but also often featured prominently (even on the poster!). Mara’s performance is fine here; the fault is in the script that gives her nothing to work with.
And furthermore, why was an American movie star cast as a character based on an Australian, set in Australia? There is a wealth of local talent here that the director could, and should, have taken advantage of.
Performances of Uneven Quality
Lion satisfies many of the criteria of Oscar bait. A true story: check. Serious yet heart-warming: check. It’s been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor for Patel.
However, the quality of its performances are uneven. Sunny Pawar is by far the most dynamic and watchable performer. It’s he that steals this film, not Patel. But the technical complications of the Academy Awards mean that he qualifies for the category of Best Actor, a harder category to crack in to.
Nicole Kidman and David Wenham play the roles of the adopting Australian parents. Their performances in the first half, although brief, are honest and believable representations of eager new parents. In the second half, however, Wenham is the only actor content with a naturalistic performance.
Kidman, who is also Oscar-nominated for her role, is painfully histrionic in the second half. Her younger adopted son isn’t speaking to her, Saroo is in Melbourne and she’s not coping well. In her heartfelt Oscar-grab moment, she raises the bar of melodrama to a level that Patel is unwilling to reciprocate.
Issues of Cultural Representation
Although this may seem like a typical film about love and family, a closer analysis of the representation of Indian families reveals the propagation of insidious negative stereotypes. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Greig Fraser, fresh from Rogue One glory, places great emphasis on the sweeping beauty of the Tasmanian coast, yet chooses to highlight the dark, dirty corners of poverty struck India. The poorly-written script reaches its cringe-inducing climax in Kidman’s awards-bait monologue. She preaches an ethnocentric white savior narrative, revealing that she chose to adopt because of a “suffering brown child” which presented itself to her in a childhood dream.
Virat Nehru insightfully summarised the issues in his article for Four Three Film:
“It’s immediately apparent that Lion has good intentions. Sadly, that’s almost all it has. If director Garth Davis’ intended audience are only those white individuals who travel to “exotic” places like India to both experience the world and absolve themselves of their guilt of privilege, then he has hit the bullseye in terms of the film’s tone… In that sense, Lion has a lot in common with Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, an Oscar-winning act of white audience placating which parroted the same tiresome negative stereotypes about India: that it’s a chaotic, cruel and dirty place, and the majority of the people are poor, but all that is of little significance because the people have ‘big’ hearts.”
Lion is a good film if you consider the engaging first half, and the emotional finale. As it is, with melodramatic acting, unnecessary characters and an hour of Dev Patel looking sad, Lion is disappointingly mediocre.
What do you think are the best, and worst, films based on true stories?
Lion is currently in U.S. and U.K. theaters. For a list of international release dates, click here.
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