It's a tale of two films with Garth Davis' Lion, a movie based on the true story of Australian businessman Saroo Brierley. While the first half — chronicling Saroo's separation from his family in rural India and subsequent adoption by an Australian couple — opts for a slower, more cinematic approach, the second half — where an adult Saroo obsessively searches for his birthplace and biological family — differs drastically in tone and character, struggling to maintain cohesion.
The film's opening half is breathtakingly slow and deliberate, taking great care to set the scene of Saroo's life in India before it's quickly and suddenly uprooted. Vivid cinematography and bustling sequences create cinematic motion as the story takes its time unfolding. While technically proficient, however, the first half's best feature is eight-year-old screen-stealer Sunny Pawar as young Saroo.
Pawar's cute grin immediately endears us to his character, but he's also able to convey heartbreaking dramatics when Saroo is separated from his family. Brazen and precocious, Pawar's star power easily shines through, and he also displays excellent chemistry with the supporting cast, including Abhishek Bharate as older brother Guddu and Nicole Kidman as Saroo's adoptive mother. Pawar is bound to capture the hearts of millions through his performance here, and from his inevitable appearances at all the film industry affairs over the coming months — watch out, Jacob Tremblay.
But once we flash forward 20 years, the film begins to falter as the pacing quickens. Dev Patel plays a 20-something Saroo struggling to overcome the childhood trauma of his separation, but his alienation and frustration come across as one-note, with hardly a lingering thread of the Saroo we just spent an hour with; they may as well be different characters. This stands in stark contrast to a film like Moonlight — one of Lion's Oscar buzz contemporaries — where character traits and threads are deftly carried between the character's multiple actors.
More worrisome still, the film is almost completely derailed the moment a character asks Saroo, "Have you heard of a new program called Google Earth?" It's true that any piece of technology is at some point new, but the way Google Earth is positioned as this salvation-bringing deus ex machina almost undermines the humanity that drives the film. It's the exhausting array of maps and printouts that showcase the impact of Saroo's obsessive hunt for his birthplace — not the montages of clicking and scrolling.
However, the film pulls itself together for a solid finale, a warm reminder that Lion most excels when it harnesses the power of human connection. (eOne)