The first feature film from director Garth Davis, Lion is certainly an impressive debut, in more ways than one – the first third of the film is incredibly gorgeous, gripping, and original, with a truly astonishing performance from 8-year-old Sunny Pawar. Unfortunately, Lion falters at the halfway mark, and never quite regains its footing. Davis’ directing is strong throughout, but he’s limited by the fact that the film is a biographical true story. Much of the runtime is dedicated to making an extensive, months-long Google search seem like compelling narrative—which, to Davis’ credit, ends up being way less boring than it sounds. Unfortunately, after the gut-wrenching emotional roller coaster of the movie’s first 45 minutes, even the most engrossing Google search is bound to fall flat. By the time the fourth scene of protagonist Saroo and his girlfriend (a cardboard cutout whose only purpose is to spout wise-sounding banalities, and eventually provide some shoehorned-in drama) spooning in bed rolls around, you’ll be checking your watch and wondering where the bathrooms are.
Saroo’s girlfriend isn’t the only one-dimensional character. Although based on real people, each individual seems to have been distilled into a single defining trait, which serves as a substitute for personality. Even Saroo, whose internal struggle is masterfully portrayed by Dev Patel, doesn’t have much to define him beyond his single driving purpose.
The ending brings the film home with an emotional punch, which does help it regain some of its earlier impact, but the piece doesn’t stand up as a cohesive whole.
Verdict: In the end, it’s a unique true story that was turned into 45 minutes of an incredible short film and an hour of an uneven—but very well acted—drama, capped off with an affecting and poignant ending.
Prediction: Of all the films, this is the one that Academy members most likely didn’t bother to see.
In addition to the Best Picture nod, Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel are both nominated for Supporting Roles (clearly a strategic move in Patel’s case, as he’s unquestionably the main character), and the film also garnered nominations for Cinematography, Original Score, and Adapted Screenplay. It’s unlikely to win in any category, strategy notwithstanding.