Google Earth to the Rescue
The Oscar catchup race continues this week and will conclude next week, so for now let’s take a look at a perfect candidate for an Academy Award – the “based on a true story” nominee. Inspired by the autobiography of Saroo Brierly, “A Long Way Home,” the movie Lion chronicles the life of an Indian boy from a small village that fell asleep on a train before finding himself stranded and getting subsequently adopted by Australian parents. But the memories of the boy’s family still haunts him to seek his birth mother to let her know he was alright. You know, a good ol’ fashioned family comedy.
I’m being facetious of course, but the life of Saroo (Sunny Pawar for the young version and Dev Patel for the older version) is a fascinating one. The film starts off with you getting to know Saroo’s home life in a small Indian village as he lived blissfully with his brother, mother, and baby sister. It’s heart wrenching to watch as you see how close the family is before Saroo’s big brother lets the young boy nap on a train station bench before never being seen again. Seeing Saroo call out his brother’s name as he wanders around the station is both depressing and unnerving to watch until he boards a train and winds up in Calcutta several days later. This is is when the second quarter of the film kicks in and, for my money, the best part.
You get to see this boy run around the city trying to survive abductions from adults and one very uncomfortable situation where two adults made very vague statements about how “great” this five year old’s body looked before he finds a way to “nope” the hell out of there. And while his famous costars are now hogging all the awards spotlight, Sunny Pawar is absolutely perfect in these scenes. His childlike laughter balanced between his quiet nervousness in scary situations felt genuine to me, and it kept bringing me deeper and deeper into the movie…until his character grows up and becomes Dev Patel and things change oddly.
Oh don’t get me wrong, Patel is also great in his role as the grown adoptee of two Australian parents (one of whom is played by Nicole Kidman). But his quest to find his birth family lacks a lot of the urgency and pace that defined the first thrilling half of the film. The movie’s latter half is more of a family melodrama, one that is clearly made for fiction as opposed to the first half having strong resemblance to the truth, and the melodrama just isn’t told that well in terms of the script. I didn’t feel the nervousness of whether Saroo was going to meet up with his family again the way I felt nervous he wasn’t going to survive Calcutta (even though I knew Dev Patel was going to be playing this character later on in the film). I think the biggest weakness with this portion of Lion is that the film turns into a parade of montages of surfing Google Earth for Saroo to track down his original village, and when it’s not doing that you find adult Saroo feeling distant from his parents and his girlfriend (played by Rooney Mara) and none of it connected with me.
It didn’t help that Rooney Mara’s character was initially seen as being thoughtful of her boyfriend’s pursuit to find his original home, but two scenes later she’s shown to be frustrated with the whole arrangement. Now this isn’t through the fault of Patel or Mara, who are acting their asses off, but their couple’s fight goes back to my problems with this script. The first half is essentially a survival film, a pretty unique one taking place in a concrete jungle filled with peril; but the second half packs in some family drama that just feels…manufactured. Honestly, a lot of Saroo’s problems in the latter half would have been worked out had he just been honest with his girlfriend and his parents about how he was feeling. Instead, he shuts down and ends up coming across as being an unlikable asshole, despite the film making him look like a good kid who was just in a messed up situation. Further, the speed of the film slows down considerably in the second half which got the wheels in my head turning.
I think a non-traditional narrative, like Jackie, would have worked wonders here, with the movie starting off with Patel as older Saroo going about his life until he has his flashback moment of recalling his birth family and the movie cuts between the two timelines. It would have made the film feel like it was moving a lot quicker, the pacing would have been improved with appropriate highs and lows (as opposed to rising tension in the first half to flat line in the second half), and both timelines would have concluded with Saroo connecting with his adoptive mother, which is honestly such a great final note to go out on that it made me forgive a lot of the script issues I had with the movie.
Kidman brought her A-game to a very minor part. If Viola Davis wasn’t in the running for Fences, I’d have little issue with awarding the Best Supporting Actress award to Nicole Kidman. In a very, VERY short amount of time, Kidman establishes her relationship with Saroo and has a very touching heart-to-heart about their relationship in the end of the movie that came close to getting me all misty-eyed. So credit to Kidman for rising above a pretty meh script with direction that was crying out for some more creativity.
Though I won’t fault this director too much, his name is Garth Davis and apparently this was his debut feature film. Which is pretty impressive for me, because the film ultimately felt very well produced. While I still say he should have taken bigger chances with editing and direction, Davis has truly demonstrated that he knows how to set up tension and work with actors of varying levels of experience. Highly interested to see where this guy goes next as he’s clearly technically accomplished delivering a very “workmanlike” production as if he’s been doing it all his life.
Overall, I really did like Lion, and I do see why it was nominated for all the awards it got nominated for. At the same time, I can’t really shake the weaknesses the script, particularly the drag in the second half of the film that really doesn’t do a great job of making Google Earth seem exciting. Nonetheless, for some great performances I’ll give this an solid…