Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Alternate Title:  Tremble, Little Lion Man
One sentence synopsis:  An Indian boy adopted by Australians after being hopelessly lost from his family, searches for a way to find his original home as a young man.

Things Havoc liked: In 1986, a five-year-old boy named Saroo Khan left his home in the Khandwa region of central India to accompany his older brother to a work site nearby. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, he wound up accidentally boarding a train which took him to the Bengali city of Calcutta, over a thousand miles away. Lost, and too young to remember the proper name of his village or mother, he wound up living on the street as a beggar before being picked up by an adoption agency and ultimately getting adopted by a couple from Tasmania. Decades later, the now-adult Saroo embarked on a quest to find his original family, conducting a grueling search using online resources and the scattered, fragmented memories of his home to eventually find the village he was from, re-united with his birth mother and family after twenty-five years' absence. This astounding story is the one that we are considering this week, thanks to Australian director Garth Davies, a veteran of commercials and television shows, who decided to produce a film adaptation of the above tale for his cinematic debut, one that would star Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, and David Wenham.

But we're not going to talk about any of those people right now. We're going to talk instead about a little boy named Sunny Pawar, who plays Saroo as a young child, who was six years old at the time this film was made, and who is, unquestionably, the best thing in the entire movie. I've long held that kids are natural actors, which accounts for the high quality of the majority of child-actors one encounters at the movies, but Pawar is well and truly a prodigy, spending the majority of the first half of the film anchoring it by himself, as he turns up lost on the streets of Calcutta, scrounging food where he can, sleeping in train stations and underground tunnels, and dodging gangs of kidnappers, child traffickers, and sex slave operations (in case you had not guessed, this movie paints India as a wonderful and heartwarming place). It's a tall order for any actor, let alone one who is six, but Pawar does an immaculate job of portraying the innocence of his age combined with a child's intuitive ability to sense when there is something drastically wrong with a situation, even if he does not know what it is.

And it's not like the rest of the actors are letting the film down. Dev Patel, whom I have liked, albeit with reservations, ever since I saw Slumdog Millionaire nearly a decade ago, takes on the role of the adult Saroo, and plays a far more "adult" character than the wide-eyed idealists he's taken on in movies like the aforementioned Slumdog Millionaire, The Man Who Knew Infinity, or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (the brevity of this film's title comes as a welcome sequence-break for him). The moments where we get to simply see him as a young man in Australia, though rather brief (more on that later), are convincing and compelling, showcasing more range than Patel has previously evidenced. Better still is Nicole Kidman, whom I've never had that much use for, as her career before this has involved films like The Invasion, Australia, Moulin Rouge, The Golden Compass, and Batman Forever, none of which were particularly good. She is, however, unreservedly excellent here as Saroo's adoptive mother, either when first meeting the young Saroo at the airport in Tasmania (where she sports one of the most magnificent examples of '80s hair' ever filmed), or decades later, trying to keep her family together in the face of mounting obstacles. Kidman has long been regarded as a fantastic actor, but this is the first time I've ever really seen it, as the cloying stupidities of previous years give way to a nuanced and heart-wrenching performance of a woman who desperately wants to keep her family together in the form she has managed to compile it, all without giving way to mawkish cliches that typically surround adoptive parents in films like this. Her reaction to Saroo's obsession with finding his original family, or to his adoptive brother's escalating drug use, centers the better parts of the film's second half.

Things Havoc disliked: Oh I'm sorry, did I forget to mention Saroo's adopted brother? Who is not only a drug addict but autistic to boot? Well don't worry, because the movie forgot to mention him too.

Well that's not really fair I suppose, for after all they did mention him enough for me to include him in this review. And it's not like the character, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) is badly acted, as such archetypes (the autist, the drug addict) so often can be. Indeed, Mantosh and Saroo share an effective frustrated-but-fraternal chemistry when they're on-screen together. But given that this only happens for about twelve seconds across the entire film, it is rather hard to form a definitive opinion. Similarly Rooney Mara, so radiantly good in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and so radiantly absent from my films ever since (save for a cameo role in Her). Her role in this one is Saroo's American love interest, but that implies that she has something to do in the film, which she does not, save for the occasional worried look as Saroo fails to speak with her about what the hell he is doing, something he does with great frequency with most of the cast, ignoring everything as he obsesses over Google Earth and searches ceaselessly for his real mother.

And why is he so obsessed? Well you'd think that question would be reasonably easy to answer given the circumstances, and yet the movie never really gives us any indication of what that answer is. Part of that is the fact that we never really get to know Saroo as an adult, he sort of springs fully-formed onto the screen as an obsessive young man neglecting girlfriends, jobs, and family in favor of this all-consuming quest. All well and good, but are we to assume that he has been this obsessed and closed off for his entire life? His well-adjusted circle of friends, his girlfriend, his loving family, all of whom react with worry and concern at his recent behavior, would all seem to indicate otherwise, and yet from what we have to go for on the screen, that's really the only explanation we've got, unless he spontaneously decided one day to become a haunted recluse crouched over a computer clicking on maps of northern India.

And that's really what kills the second half of this movie. Not the acting, nor the story, nor the characters, but the myopic focus on Saroo's search, a process that involves us watching him stare at Google Earth and click, and click, and click, and click. There's no sense of progression, of how he's trying to organize his search, of what methods he's using to try and find his original home. I'm not looking for a forensic geography lesson here (though that would have been pretty cool), but we need something to keep us occupied as the main character spends an hour staring at screens, in an admittedly perhaps inevitable violation of the common screenwriting rule that you never film other screens if you can possibly avoid it. Indeed, so badly-paced is this movie throughout its second half that when Saroo finally does find his home in blurry satellite pictures, a moment that should be infused with genuine emotion falls flat on its face due to the fact that, as far as we can tell, he stumbled into it completely by chance, having done nothing for the last few years but randomly drag his cursor over his computer.

Final thoughts:   It should be mentioned that the movie does end on a strong note, as Saroo returns to India (spoilers are irrelevant with a true story, I should think) to find his original family at long last, but the baffling choices made by Davis rob the movie of the potential to be something truly great. That said, for its strong first half, its superb performance by one of the youngest children I've ever seen act appreciably, and for the generally compelling nature of its remarkable story, Lion retains enough for a conditional recommendation on my part. Given that we're now in January, a time in which the film calendar has nothing but terrible horror movies, worse Christian movies, and the leftovers of last year's Oscar season, there are far greater sins than a bit of bad pacing.

Though I am still waiting for Dev Patel to make "that movie" that I know him to be capable of. If Ryan Reynolds can do it after all this time, surely he can too.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  Denzel Washington yells at people.

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