Scottsdale International Film Festival: LION

Well-acted, well-directed hot garbage.

Film festival season means it’s prestige drama season.  Typically this means the next three months, from October to December, will be inundated with every film a studio thinks has a shot at bringing home Oscar gold.  Some are good, some are bad, but most are inoffensive and relatively run-of-the-mill.  Lion, The Weinstein Company’s latest Oscar-crowd effort, sadly falls firmly in the “bad” category.  Simply put,  Lion is well-acted, well-directed hot garbage*.

Lion tells the story of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian boy who finds himself lost hundreds of miles from home.  After suffering through homelessness, near abduction, and an abusive children’s center, he is adopted by an Australian family and moved to Hobart, Tasmania.  After growing up and beginning a new life, he starts searching for his past home, hoping to find his lost mother and brother.  His single-minded focus on this search puts him at odds with his girlfriend, his adoptive parents, and his fellow adopted brother.

Now I’m sure the real life Saroo Brierley is a wonderful person, but the version that has made its way into Luke Davies script is vehemently awful.  “Film Saroo” is probably one of the worst protagonists in a “feel good” film I’ve ever seen:  He’s self-centered, hateful, and generally abhorrent to the people who care the most about him.  He’s abusive towards his mentally unstable adopted brother, who likely suffers from PTSD.  His incredibly supportive girlfriend gets dumped for having the audacity to offer to assist in his search.  Worst of all, he refuses to tell his parents about his search and then incorrectly accuses his adopted mother of only wanting him because she was barren.

Now, all three of these things happen at the end of the second act of the film, which traditionally is where you see your protagonist at his lowest point.  Screenwriting 101 would say that the protagonist then needs to make amends and overcome his obstacles, allowing the audience to celebrate his triumph.  Saroo, on the other hand, makes his amends by doing the following: apologizing to his sleeping brother (and no, we never see his brother after this point, so we have no idea if he actually apologized to his brother’s face).  That’s literally the only amends he makes, despite all of the horrendous things he put his loved ones through.  But don’t worry, his girlfriend takes him back and his parents are happy for him when he finally manages to find his family.

In spite of this, Dev Patel does a great job portraying Saroo.  Patel is saddled with the impossible job of making this character work, and any emotional investment we have to his character is entirely due to his performance.  He’s charismatic and charming, and it’s a testament to his acting that I still managed to not root for his character’s failure.

Rooney Mara is stuck with the thankless role of Saroo’s girlfriend Lucy.  Mara uses what little she is given to work with and make the best of it, but she doesn’t get a whole lot to do other than pine for Saroo.  I wish I could go in-depth into her character, but she’s really only there to be another obstacle/problem for Saroo to overcome.  It’s a shame, because Mara is a great actress who can bring a commanding presence even in small roles, such as her brief appearance in The Social Network.

The standout of the cast is Nicole Kidman as Sue Brierley, Saroo’s adoptive mother.  Kidman is emotionally endearing whenever she’s on screen, turning clunky dialogue in her monologues into awards-reel highlights.  She’s earnest, warm, and radiant from start to finish, showing great chemistry with both Patel as well as David Wenham, who portrays her husband John.

Director Garth Davis, in his feature film debut, and cinematographer Greig Fraser craft a tremendously beautiful looking film, in spite of any shortcomings of the script.  In particular, the early scenes in Kolkata are gripping and tense, and Fraser’s camera is used like an expert painter’s brush, filling the frame with vibrant colors and vivid images.  Despite his inexperience, Davis delicately manages to maintain a balanced tone throughout, despite the film leaping from child abduction (and implied rape) to its more traditional feel good aura.

At 2 hours and 9 minutes, Lion is too weighed down by its lofty run time.  The opening scenes in India initially feel like a routine prologue intended to set up Saroo’s story, but these scenes eventually take up half the film’s run-time.  Fortunately, these are the most interesting and entertaining portions of the movie, but I couldn’t help but wonder when the primary plotline was going to begin.  Once Saroo’s search finally does begin, it spends too much time setting up and maintaining threads that provide little to no emotional payoff, particularly Saroo’s relationship with his brother and girlfriend.

The deep flaws of the script are undoubtable, and at its best the writing is hollow and full of cliché.  There’s a lot to like in Lion, but it’s hindered by the fact that it that requires us to be emotionally invested in an insufferable turd of a protagonist.  The elements of the film that do work, unfortunately, don’t elevate the material enough to make the film worthwhile.  It’s a watered down Slumdog Millionaire meets The Blind Side, but without any of Slumdog’s joy or originality.

*And winner of 2nd place in the Scottsdale International Film Festival’s Audience Award