By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Recently, there was a full-page ad for “Lion” in the Sunday New York Times. Given that the film has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, this isn’t especially surprising.
What is surprising is, instead of the usual critics’ quotes, the ad features ringing endorsements from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and UNICEF.
UNICEF? That all but spells out you must be a bad person if you don’t love “Lion.”
I didn’t love “Lion,” ergo … oh well.
Based on a true story, “Lion” begins as the saga of a very little boy lost in a very big world. It’s the mid-1980s and five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives in India with his impoverished mom and older brother, Guddu, both of whom he adores. When Guddu sets off to find work outside their immediate slum, Saroo begs to go with him. Guddu reluctantly agrees.
However, things go awry almost immediately. The two are somehow separated at a train station and Saroo boards an empty train to nap and await his brother’s return. But when he wakes up, the train has traveled some thousand miles to the east.
Saroo finds himself alone in a huge, bustling city. He has no idea where he is; worse, he speaks Hindi and in Calcutta, where he’s landed, everyone speaks Bengali. The usual kid-on-his-own perils ensue, everything from child snatchers who regularly comb the streets for lost little ones they can sell to nasty people for nasty purposes, to a falsely enticing woman – she’s like the witch in Hansel and Gretel – who, well, does pretty much the same thing.
Escaping her clutches, Saroo is put in an orphanage where they pretty much … all together now…do the same thing. But this time, the boy is lucky. He’s adopted by a couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) who bring him home to live with them in Tasmania. They are dream parents, loving and supportive, even with a bad-seed second son they adopt after Saroo.
Jump ahead 20 or so years and Saroo (Dev Patel), though enrolled in school and in deep flirtation with a gorgeous classmate (Rooney Mara, given nothing to do), suddenly has questions. Who is he really? Where is his real family? Why should he stay with his adoptive parents, even though they’ve been unwaveringly wonderful to him?
The rest of the movie, which includes a big plug for Google Maps, concerns Saroo’s search for his roots.
Or, more likely, Patel’s on-going search for a Hollywood career.
The first half of “Lion” – the part about little Saroo – is spectacular. Pawar, a non-pro, is as affecting as any child actor in recent memory. He’s charming, stubborn, resourceful and resolute. He’s “Slumdog Millionaire” meets “Oliver Twist,” and he’s irresistible.
Kidman is equally compelling. But it’s not her story – though, in many ways, it should be, especially after Saroo has grown up and she’s forced to deal with his unexpected rejection of everything she and her husband have given him.
However, “Lion” is about Saroo – unfortunately, the adult Saroo who, as played by Patel, is moody, conflicted and yet somehow “heroic.” Or so the movie insists.
Newbie director Garth Davis certainly seems taken with Patel – though not half as much as Patel is taken with himself.
Perhaps that’s the heart of “Lion’s” problem: Patel comes off like an Indian Richard Gere (incidentally, they co-starred in the pathetic “Best Marigold Hotel” sequel). That is, he’s absolutely convinced he’s more appealing than he is. By contrast, Pawar is so refreshing, so dedicated, so natural, you wish he’d grown up to be anyone except Patel.
No filmmaker – no artist, for that matter – wants to be told what he or she should’ve done. But given the distressing contrast between the excellent first and distressing second half of “Lion,” maybe Davis should’ve ended his picture when little Saroo, having escaped a Dickensian catalogue of horrors, finds safe harbor and solace in Kidman’s arms.
That’s not the whole story, but sometimes, half of a story can be exactly what’s needed. I mean, does anyone really want to know what Dorothy’s life was like back in Kansas with Auntie Em?