Best Picture Nominee Movie Review: Lion
By Steven Slater
February 27, 2017
Would I be lion to you if I told you this movie is about Matt Damon owning a zoo? Or that this film is about a young cub who has to learn to become a pack leader and take back his rightful place Indian? (In-dee-an...see, it’s a pun, uh, nevermind).
Lion is a strange movie. Moonlight is another movie that is nominated for Best Picture that I also found strange in almost exactly the same way. What conspiracy is going on here? Not Tim Burton strange, but odd in how they approach narrative storytelling. Hey, wake up, this is important! Lion is a docudrama, telling the true story of an Indian boy who became very lost from his family at the age of five, wound up in an orphanage, was adopted by Tasmanian parents, and eventually used Google Earth to try and find his home in India. This does not really spoil the film (spoilers!), and you can easily guess the trajectory of the narrative.
What I find so strange about Lion and Moonlight is that they both feel incomplete to me. Not awful by any means, as they both have lots of incredible parts, but at the end of both films it felt like something was missing. Let me tell you what is great about Lion and what I felt was missing, and you can decide whether or not to see it, or if you already have, if you agree.
First of all, Lion really is centered on Saroo, and the whole film rests upon his shoulders. The younger Saroo, who gets lost from his family and is orphaned and adopted, is played by Sunny Pawar in a heart-wrenching performance. Those big eyes certainly help, as well as the unspoken juxtaposition of life in India for children versus the typical childhood any audience member will imagine. The older Saroo, played by Dev Patel, grows up with another adopted Indian orphan in a Tasmanian family, goes to college, falls for someone, and eventually faces the gnawing anxiety regarding his biological family. Dev Patel gives a good performance, but the emotional core of the film is really crafted by Sunny Pawar.
The cinematography is also superb, making India a character unto itself. The story is honestly very simple, and the dialogue is fairly succinct, so I feel that much of the film is fleshed out by the camera work. Images play onscreen many times, we see the rush of life in India, and our eyes dwell on little moments. I think Sunny Pawar and cinematographer Greig Fraser are the best parts of the film. This is fairly notable in a film with Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, and Faramir - sorry - David Wenham. I believe that this film is an important reminder of the kinds of stories we don’t normally get to see or hear, in a place we do not often see.
So what is the thing that is missing? Honestly, the film felt like it should have been a one-hour television special. There is certainly enough put in place to create the feature film, but it felt like a chunk of narrative was missing. I think it revolves around the supporting characters; they all have a presence, and the actors do good work, but it feels like they kind of float through Saroo’s life without much impact. Either cut them out, focus only on Saroo, and make a one-hour special, or flesh out the supporting cast and their stories and make a fuller film. I could be wrong about that being the missing piece, but that was my impression, perhaps augmented by the way the film seems to end a bit too abruptly.
For the most part, Lion is a great film that sucks you in, and you really stick to Saroo and his hardships. I certainly recommend seeing it, and I know many people who think it is the best movie of the year. But something about it holds it back from greatness for me. Like Dev Patel, who broke out in Slumdog Millionaire, I hope we see more of Sunny Pawar.
Slater Grade: B+