“Lion” is a two-act film that gets much better as it goes along. That isn’t to disparage its opening so much as it is to reward its closing. Once Dev Patel, unfairly called a “supporting actor” in this film, enters the picture, things hit another level. The emotional story follows a young boy lost 1,600 kilometers from his home in India and his 25 year journey to get back.
You will cry, unless you’re truly devoid of empathy and human emotion. If you’re like me, you’ll cry multiple times. Thanks to some great acting and directing, you’ll laugh, too. The opening act, which includes most of those laughs, drags a little long for my liking, but you’ll forgive it for the emotional payoff. I can’t comment on how closely “Lion” sticks to the story on which its based, but I can assure you it rewards its audience in the end.
Patel, whose breakout performance in “Slumdog Millionaire” garnered him interest (and not much more) will get more out of “Lion.” He broods, rages and roars both with and against Rooney Mara in the strongest scenes of the film. You may know him from “Millionaire,” but you’ve never seen him like you’ll see him in “Lion.” He’s truly spectacular.
Perhaps that’s why it feels like it takes an eternity for him to show up. It’s not until nearly an hour into the film that Patel first appears with a “20 years later” tagline. “About damn time,” crossed through my mind as we see him off the Australian coast where his character spent most of his life, raised by his adopted parents.
This is where the film gets interesting. His adoptive mother, Nicole Kidman, is never the focal point of the story and in a worse movie she would have been. Her experiences and her love for Patel matter, but they aren't everything and never distract from the life of the brown man we're here for. That matters.
Patel embarks on a quest to find his birth mother and brother with the help of Mara and while it never quite hits Sherlock Holmes sleuthing, we get at least a glimpse of the charts-on-walls Rust Cohle nonsense Patel gets into. What really matters to “Lion” is its characters. The super-sleuthing and Google Earthing would matter more to a different director, but not to Garth Davis, who makes his feature-length debut with “Lion.” He cares about Saroo.
That’s to the benefit of the film overall. It goes too sentimental at times while leaving the meatier bits of storytelling behind, but a film as heart-wrenching as “Lion” needs that. If a film about humanity must err in one direction, let it err towards loving its humans. If “Lion’s” biggest flaw is that it loves people too much, I’ll forgive it.
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