There are a few pretty reliable sorts of films you’ll see around Oscar season, and those reliable sorts usually tend to be made by Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein films tend to be synonymous with the sort of middlebrow works positioned more for their campaign potential than anything else, often true stories of some mild social relevance with a cast that can only be described as “respectable as hell.” Often more Masterpiece Theatre than anything else.
In other words, the kind of films that do almost less than nothing for me.
So let it be no small compliment how much I ultimately like Lion. On its surface, Lion appears to be every other Weinstein picture, a true story of Saroo Brierly (Sunny Pawar) who gets separated from his rural family at a very young age. He’s adopted by an Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), and raised away from the culture of his childhood. As an adult (Dev Patel), he longs to find the village and the family he lost and loses himself in the search with the help of Google Earth, at the expense of the relationship with his family and with his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara).
In other words, it’s a true story about globalization and the search for identity among those displaced from their native lands featuring actors who have been in plenty of awards conversations before. A fairly typical Weinstein picture, middlebrow and crowd pleasing and designed to garner trophy after trophy.
Yet it really does feel like so much more than that. That surface quickly gives way to a rich and gorgeous experience with a cast that actually feels like they’re trying, plunging into something rather than just coasting on the material.
Now, much of that is thanks to the hand of Garth Davis, a director most famous for his work on the TV show Top of the Lake. He’s got a lot of collaborators helping him out here. DP Greig Frasier’s shoots Lion with a warm yet haunting visual eye. Luke Davies’ script finds more nuance in the characters and situations that few others likely would have given this. Composers Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka put together an impeccably composed score that makes even the most intimate moments feel sweeping.
And what Davis does is put it all together through a legitimate love of these characters and an understanding of their situations. This isn’t the poverty porn of something like Slumdog Millionaire. Not an aesthetic, but something the film is thinking through, encountering its ideas about how Indian society interacts with these people and then how that changes when those brought up in it encounter the world of privilege.
(Quick note: I want to point you towards this review from Siddhant Adlakha, who gets into those issues with much more nuance than would be ever possible from me.)
And then again how that interaction changes. Saroo goes off to school and encounters fellow students actually raised in India, once he’s become fully assimilated in Australian society. Watching those little interactions, the way he brushes up against what he forgot, the way he loses himself in the search for that identity, this all feels real.
Davis has made a film that interacts with identity and self-discovery in ways that feel true even within an incredibly lovely cinematic artifice. Yes, this film feels like a piece of groomed cinema. It’s incredibly composed in its shooting, there’s a very delicate beauty to it all, with the soft glowing light given to the interpersonal interactions always underpinned by a piano in the background pouring its heart into the keys. But that artifice is given to real emotion, a powerful story that feels real in the smallest interactions.
Of course, much of that is thanks to the actors. Of course Nicole Kidman is great, making the most of her tiny moments as Saroo’s mother, and Sunny Pawar is a surprise delight as young Saroo. One does wish Rooney Mara’s girlfriend character had more to do, but when does one ever get enough of Rooney Mara?
This however is Dev Patel’s movie and he absolutely knocks it out of the park. This is his best performance, revealing the talent lying under the surface of the man who has apparently had one of the worst agents in Hollywood (Chappie and The Last Airbender? Damn). He slips perfectly into the role of a man lost in self-discovery, letting his expressive eyes do so much of the talking, wearing the pain in the smallest shifts on his face, the way he holds himself and the way his body changes. He’s damn good in this, selling every part of the back half of this movie on his skill.
And that’s what Lion really is. It’s a movie that could have gone wrong in so very many ways. But it takes a whole lot of skill and nuance and works it into the story. Even when things sag before Dev Patel’s portion begins, this movie knows how to keep it moving and feels a whole lot better than it has any right to be. If this is the sort of movie made to win Oscars this year, then we’re in for a damn fine treat.
P.S. It’s so good, I’ll ignore the pictures of real people at the end.