Thursday, February 23, 2017

OVP: Lion (2016)

Film: Lion (2016)
Stars: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Sunny Pawar
Director: Garth Davis
Oscar History: 6 nominations (Best Picture, Supporting Actor-Dev Patel, Supporting Actress-Nicole Kidman, Cinematography, Score, Adapted Screenplay)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Each Oscar season, especially after the nominations were announced, there's a movie that people in my life who don't know movies super well but who know I like movies, ask me about.  At the beginning of the nominations, and especially after the Globes wins, that movie was La La Land, which is likely to soar into Best Picture this Sunday, perhaps gaining an historic 12+ victories.  However, I should note that another film has all but usurped it in terms of people asking me about "what did you think?" and while this is anecdotal, it does perhaps hint at what screeners might be getting to the top of the stacks of AMPAS voters, and that is Lion.  Considering I still have eleven Oscar-nominated 2016 films that I've seen but not yet reviewed (ARGH!!!!), I figured I'd make a point of at least getting the buzzed-about titles onto the blog and my thoughts on it out before it perhaps wins a surprise trophy?

(Spoilers Ahead) The film is told in two parts, with very few flashbacks in-between so the narrative isn't quite what you'd expect.  The first half focuses on Saroo (Pawar, Patel as an adult) when he is a young boy in India, and who gets on a train one night with his brother (despite the fact that his brother doesn't want to take him).  Saroo, through a coincidence of circumstances, is forced away from his brother while he's taking a nap, and ends up on a train halfway across of India, a thousand miles from his home, not speaking the language.  He is put in an orphanage and is eventually adopted by a Tasmanian couple named Sue (Kidman) and John (Wenham), and is raised alongside a more tempestuous brother.  The film cuts twenty years into the future with Saroo now a young man with a thick Australian accent, and who is struggling to come to terms with his family that never knew what happened to him.  Through a series of investigations (and what appears to be a solid advertisement for Google Earth), he ends up finding his parents, but along the way comes to terms with his complicated relationship with his adoptive parents and his girlfriend and his sense of identity.  Like most true stories, the film ends with a look at where Saroo ended up (and how his actual name was Sheru, which means lion, hence the title).

It's a lovely movie, I must say, and one that holds up somewhat despite a heavy dose of schmaltz.  The first half of the film is riveting, and grounded by a strong piece of work by young Sunny Pawar, probably the best child acting performance of the year, or at least in any of the Best Pictures.  The film doesn't shy away from a lot of complicated questions, particularly around identity, and I've never seen Dev Patel be better (or, quite frankly, be more attractive, though unlike the rest of the internet I've noticed Patel before-I always like guys with stuck-out ears).  I will say, though that his acting abilities eluded me before and while I don't think this is Oscar-worthy stuff, he has tremendous promise in this role and I hope people give him more to do after Lion.

But I couldn't love the film.  I cried, don't get me wrong, but this is a sad and moving story-I think only a statue doesn't end up crying by the end of it.  However, the film itself never really is as interesting as it wants to be, and the adult half of the film never quite recovers from the gargantuan task set before it in the first half of the movie.  I didn't love Kidman's performance-I thought it was lived-in and I'm a big fan usually, but her major scene reeked of someone who deserved less sympathy than we would have afforded her (the white savior complex may be real, but it's hard to imagine that she viewed herself that way and it wouldn't have come back to bite her in terms of her sons at some point), and otherwise she just sort of is in the background of the film-the Oscar nod was a bit much.  The movie never knows what's going on with Patel's relationship with Rooney Mara (Mara, a hit-or-miss actress for me, can't figure out her character at all), and the ending, while moving, is completely anticipated throughout and there's very little drama in the last half hour.  It's one of those movies that brilliantly handles "we know how this is going to end" for the first hour but then loses that lens in the second half, trying to be a thriller where the reveal is already there.

Those are my thoughts on Lion, a fine if not superb movie.  What were yours?  I'm guessing most people have seen it by now, so am I in the majority or is this the Oscar nominee everyone feels was kind of more Oscar-bait than Oscar-worthy?  And where do Patel/Kidman rank in your personal ballots?  Share below!

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