Sometimes, being based on a true story can really hold a film’s potential back. As a necessity to the story itself, filmmakers are forced to maintain certain elements to tell the true-to-life narrative, and when it works out to a great cinematic experience, it’s amazing. When it doesn’t, it’s somewhat sad and a huge waste of potential. Lion, based on a book from Saroo Brierley directed by first-time director Garth Davis, is one such waste. By spanning the gap throughout the film of the young and the elder Saroo, it does a disservice to the cinematic experience overall. Saroo’s real-life story is an utterly heartbreaking but ultimately triumphant tale of a man who, after a quarter of a century, finally finds his way home. If only the film itself could have been so triumphant. Real-life spoilers to follow.
At the age of 5, young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) goes to a railway station far from home at night, but is too tired to go find work with him, and promises to sleep at the station until his brother Guddu returns. When he wakes, he can’t find his brother, and boards a train looking for him; the train leaves the station, and after several days, he winds up in Kolkata (Calcutta), thousands of kilometers from his home. He doesn’t speak Bengali and can’t help anyone try to get him home, and he is forced to do what he can to try to survive. This leads to the young boy eventually being placed with an adoption agency and being adopted by a family from Tasmania. This story is so cinematically engaging and beautifully crafted that it, by itself, is a strong contender for best picture of the year. Sunny Pawar may be the most magnetic and effortlessly charming child actor ever put in front of a camera, and Davis doesn’t waste a single moment of this. Watching as the young Saroo is hopelessly lost, without a chance of finding his way home, is simply spellbinding. The film was shot on-location in India and plays as a foreign language film, without any actor speaking a lick of English. It is indescribably beautiful, even its dirtier and grungier parts. It feels so beautifully authentic because of this.
Then, young Saroo grows up into Dev Patel, who as an adult is haunted by his youthful journey and overcome with a burning obsession to find his way back home. While the climax of the story- in which he returns home and is reunited with his mother- is extremely touching, the film completely disconnects from its audience when Saroo grows up. It isn’t to fault the performance of Dev Patel, as he really makes the role his own, but he can’t come close to the shining brilliance and watch-ability of Sunny Pawar, coupled with the fact that the writing for the second half is all over the place. Saroo goes from happy to sad and introspective and back again scene after scene, has to deal with an adopted brother with some emotional problems that seem to have been added to the film as an afterthought, and shares screen time with a seemingly always-in-tears Nicole Kidman. David Wenham (of Lord of the Rings fame) wanders in here and seems to be content just acting with a big dopey grin on his face. The second half of the film feels like a hefty slice of Oscar bait, every scene crafted simply to try to elicit an emotional response from the audience, and this is to the story’s detriment. This isn’t to undercut the real Saroo’s emotional journey, as it must have been hard on him and must have dominated his thoughts, but it didn’t make for an engaging cinematic experience, whether by itself and especially when compared to the first half of the film.
This seems to be the curse of some based-on-a-true-story films; at times, there isn’t enough dramatic meat to pull off the bone, so filmmakers either A.) invent too much to the film’s detriment, or B.) stick to the story exactly to its detriment. Sometimes, the story is just so good that it makes for an utterly compelling journey, and it is a combination of these that fuels Lion. Whatever the case may be RE: the real-life Saroo’s search to find his family, Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies fail to keep the film engaging throughout. Might they have started the film with scenes of the elder Saroo, searching for his family? Dev Patel-as-Saroo isn’t introduced until well into the film, after Pawar has done so much work in engaging the audience with his own vision of the character. Sorry to say for Dev, but he just couldn’t hold up the weight of it. Perhaps it could’ve gone back to the elder Saroo periodically as he recalled the tale, and maybe this could’ve been more about his own recollections as he wrote the novel.
Whatever the case may be, the truth is that Lion is definitely a must-see film just for the journey of the character. Its ending is at the same time extraordinarily uplifting and heart-breakingly tragic, and the film’s credits play out with video of Saroo’s adopted mother meeting his real mother. It just couldn’t find the balance that it could and should have to deliver a consistent film throughout. 7 out of 10 stars.