With the exception of the ending, by which time the film has earned it and we demand the catharsis, Lion keeps it sentimentality and emotions at a low simmer. It’s a bit refreshing for a film that finds itself as a power player in the Oscar race. I doubt Lion will win much, but it’s quietness, it’s emotionally naked and honest performances are most welcome breathers between the louder entries in this year’s race.
At its best moments, Lion is a film about a man trapped between two worlds, lost between his past and present, and uncomfortable with looking too far into his future. The story is undeniably moving and uplifting in its truth, but something funny happens between the two halves that make up its structure. The first moves along at a breezy, consistently engaging clip, then the second slogs down, takes too long to get where it’s going, but there’s still plenty to enjoy along the way.
The first half is a better movie, with a wonderfully plucky performance from Sunny Pawar as young Saroo, as it places us squarely in the eyes of this child. We experience his fears, marvel at his pluck and ingenuity, and rejoice in the brief moments of kindness and connection he encounters with strangers. A moment where he catches Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother crying touched me very deeply for the delicate way he wipes away her tears. I just wish that Lion had kept up this pace and emotional investment during the second half.
The second half’s problem isn’t in the continued performance of Kidman, who is absolutely stunning in her muted role here, especially in a scene where she tells Saroo why she chose to adopt him and want he’s meant to her life. Hell, Kidman’s delivery of a message of support and hope for her adopted son’s choice to travel back to India to find his birth mother is an emotional knockout of what maternal love and devotion looks like.
Nor is the problem in Dev Patel’s textured, soulful performance as the adult Saroo. Patel’s work here is nuanced and completely absorbing, even when the film is operating at the emotional and visual equivalent of the color beige. His large eyes are deeply expressive, and his haunted look as repressed memories come flooding back is an astounding bit of minute acting for the screen. He carries the next hour entirely on his slender shoulders with grace and ease, even as Lion quickly loses momentum and sputters towards its rousing finish.
For a film that roared out of the gate (sorry!), Lion quickly yawns as it goes more formulaic and guarded. The tension of the first hour evaporates like steam, and it takes us nearly 50 minutes to get from Australia back to India for Saroo’s reunion with his birth mother. Lion is frustrating in how imperfect it is, but it is also a deeply felt and pleasing film. Give me ten more films like this before I have to suffer through another Hacksaw Ridge.