Oscar bait is a funny thing, isn’t it? The notion of film for the purpose of awards attraction is troubling, not only because the film’s quality may be affected by studio or distributor attempts to make it more palatable or moving, but because the entire content of a film is dependent on its supposed “social importance.” Consider the advertisements that appeared across Los Angeles before the Oscars in support of “The Imitation Game,” the 2014 biopic of gay computer science pioneer Alan Turing. “Honor this man,” read the advertisement. But that’s not the film’s fault (though, no doubt, the screenplay, with its repetitive “inspirational” platitudes, had Oscar gold on its mind); the problem with the Oscar bait-centered criticism is that it can deride a perfectly good movie.
“Lion” might be one of those movies — which is a shame, because it’s emotionally powerful and well-constructed, and doomed to a marketing campaign that directs filmgoers to see this movie because it’s an Important Movie. “Lion” begins a few decades ago in an Indian slum, where Saroo (the aborable young newcomer Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his brother at a train station. Saroo goes looking for his big brother and ends up napping on a stationary train, which later begins to move across the country. Saroo, lost in Calcutta, where the natives speak Bengali, not Hindu, bounces from a home to a group of children on the street to, finally, an orphanage, from which Saroo is later adopted by the Brierley family, a couple from Australia (Nicole Kidman, “Genius,” and David Wenham, “300: Rise of an Empire”).
The first half of “Lion” is some of the best filmmaking of the year. Pawar’s performance is riveting, perhaps because he doesn’t fall for any of the typical mistakes child actors do, namely line recitation rather than acting. Pawar is not only convincing as the young Saroo, he’s captivating. So is his brother, Guddu (another first-time actor, Abhisek Bharate), but he’s given considerably less screen time, understandably. Greig Fraser’s (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) cinematography is partly responsible, transforming an all-too-typical cinematic image of Indian poverty (see: “Slumdog Millionaire”) into breathtaking storytelling. It’s all the more surprising that the film was directed by Garth Davis, who only has a few short films under his belt, and no feature films. Davis demonstrates a mastery of the camera, especially in the first half, that should serve as a calling card for years to come.
“Lion” finds its premise in the second half, where a 20-something Saroo (Dev Patel, “The Man Who Knew Infinity”) — adorned with a mane of long hair that, perhaps, hints at the film’s title — has all but renounced his Indian heritage, proudly boasting his Australian upbringing. But it’s the mid-2000s, the inception of the information age, and when someone mentions Google Earth, then new, the idea of locating his home strikes at Saroo. The film thus becomes a procedural, long takes of Saroo obsessively working on his computer, mapping out the region and possible train routes. He descends into a sort of chaotic fugue state; he becomes aggressive towards his girlfriend, Lucy (an uncharacteristically bland Rooney Mara, “Carol”). He doesn’t get along with his adopted brother, also from India, who did not adjust as well twenty years before. The second half is stuffed with these tropes of procedural drama, and it proves rather distracting. Screenwriters (in this case, Luke Davies, who also wrote last year’s “Life”) often must take dramatic liberties with source material, but must it be so melodramatic?
But the power of “Lion” is indisputable. Its emotional potency is in no small indebted to its heartbreaking subject matter — just imagine mysteriously losing your family with no closure — but Davis’s direction, far superior to Davies’s screenplay, breathes life into a fascinating story, which could have made for an otherwise achingly dull movie in another director’s hands.