You won’t know Garth Davis’s name unless you’re an avid fan of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, or you happen to love Schweppes commercials. Once you see his feature debut, Lion, you’ll know him as the filmmaker who brought you to tears just to smear them all over the screen. Lion is, both at first glance and after well-considered scrutiny, the kind of weepy that tends to get attention during awards season for being based on a true story and for striking its audience square in the lacrimal gland. Be warned: Lion will reduce you to a sniffling wreck.
Stone-hearted types may resist its cathartic charms, or they may try, but the film isn’t traditionally manipulative in the same vein as so many other movies of its make. Davis has a knack for engineering waterworks, and skill enough to break through the defenses of even the most stoic viewers—though only for half the film’s running time—but most of all he embraces authenticity in storytelling. It helps that Lion refrains from overwhelming mushiness and manufactured sentimentality, and also that its story has the rare power to appeal to viewers’ lachrymose center without any excess persuasion. Lion earns our unabashed blubbering not simply through its design but rather through the organic nature of its material.
In other words, the film doesn’t tinker with the truth more than it must in order to translate the chronicle of Saroo Brierley into cinema—which is a double-edged sword: That approach serves the inherently compelling drama of Saroo’s story wonderfully for its first chapter, but horribly for the inherently uncompelling drama of its second. Saroo is Lion’s protagonist, played by two actors at two different points in his life: Sunny Pawar plays him as a boy, and Dev Patel plays him as a man. Patel’s performance nearly anchors his stretch of the movie, but Pawar’s section works best thanks to the elemental mechanics Davis employs to draw out the tragedy in Saroo’s dilemma, never forcing it.
The based-on-a-true-story goes: Saroo lives with his family in Khandwa, a city in Madhya Pradesh, India. After he falls asleep on an empty train car, he ends up a thousand kilometers and change away, in Calcutta. He’s a lost child in a loud, unending cityscape where the common tongue isn’t his own, and his journey up to that point is harrowing, verging on nightmarish. Calcutta is no place for a lonely kid, especially a lonely kid who only knows Hindi and not Bengali or English, and Davis is fixated on the way that cities make people feel like foreigners in their own country. Saroo pushes through a crush of bodies exiting the train on its arrival in Calcutta, approaches a ticket counter to appeal for help, and is jostled, shouted at, shoved aside like any workaday inconvenience.
The absence of humanity in these encounters drains the blood from our veins. In part, this is because Davis finds economical ways of putting us on Saroo’s level, notably by constructing a language barrier between the audience and the scene. Lion is subtitled, so we understand all that’s said, but all that’s said adds to very little. Davis speaks through visuals: He’s not quite in the realm of “pure cinema,” but he lets his images fill much of the silence, and thus we find ourselves standing beside Saroo with each obstacle he stumbles upon, each predator who nearly ensnares him. His eventual arrival in an adoption center comes as a massive relief despite the future uncertainties it represents and the unnerving dilapidation of the institution itself.
And we could stop there, leave Lion at that. But Saroo’s narrative is greater than his childhood trauma, and so too is the film. Escorted from Calcutta to Hobart, Tasmania, Saroo finds a new family under the care of his adoptive parents, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley.
Once those uncertainties are clarified, Lion slowly sheds the strengths of its preface. Adult Saroo is a man with two homes, but he doesn’t know where one of them is located, and this, along with his bounty of memories of his mother and brother, causes him no end of torment. So he spends his days coping, as anybody would. Then his friends introduce him to Google Earth, and thus begins an exquisitely boring, tech-driven search for his birthplace. Davis isn’t unconcerned with this leg of Saroo’s life, but he has significantly less to say about it, and even fewer ways of dramatizing it. To fill up its duration, the film slips into a cycle of repetition wherein Saroo stares at maps and computers in anguish, and his anguish causes him to lash out at his family and withdraw into himself. (Patel struggles admirably to make something of the material given him, but he’s utterly shafted by the script.) If not for his extraordinary circumstances, he’d come off as a self-involved asshole.
The drop-off that separates Pawar’s Lion from Patel’s is so sheer that it’s vertiginous. Cut half of the latter from the picture and maybe you’d have something—at the very least you’d have a much leaner, and much more watchable, production. Even at its most redundant Davis never loses sight of its core humanity—he sustains our empathy even though he loses our interest—or fails to acknowledge the incomprehensibility of Saroo’s saga. But he stops letting Lion be a movie when it most needs to be. At the end, when the audience needs permission to indulge in euphoric bawling, you’ll shed tears for Pawar, but when Patel takes the stage, the screenplay has already run that well dry.
Director: Garth Davis
Writer: Luke Davies
Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham
Release Date: November 25, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.