Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
There are certain movies that come around once the weather plummets into a crisp chill. “Oscar Bait” is the term applied to a few of these features. Typically they are well received by all – some people tumbling head over heels more than others. That’s been the case for me these past few years. There wasn’t one holiday party I went to where a rando wouldn’t chastise me for not loving PHILOMENA as much as they. “Courtney, why didn’t you love it? Do you even love movies? What do you love?!” This exasperation is only made worse when awards committees bestow their nominations, validating these randos. The following year, I swore the same thing would happen with THE LADY IN THE VAN. Thank Jeebus it did not – probably because no one saw it. This year, I won’t be so lucky because I’ve already been challenged by some for not flipping my sh*t over LION. “Listen, I liked it. I just didn’t love it,” I’d plea. But my street cred had already taken the hit. So, please, dear reader… hear me out.
Based on a true story, director Garth Davis’ drama is driven by one young man’s (Dev Patel) search for identity and his family. Yes, the overarching story is SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE-esque. But that may be the only superficial similarity. When he was young, Saroo (played by adorable Sunny Pawar) accidentally became separated from his older brother, younger sister and mother by thousands of miles, traveling to a region in India where he’s unable to communicate with authorities. He bounced around here and there – living off the streets of Calcutta, taking up briefly with a kind woman with ulterior motives – before being picked up by an orphanage. They hook him up with a wonderful Australian couple, John and Sue Briererly (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman), who love and nurture him. They also take in a troubled, learning disabled younger boy, Mantosh (played in older years by Divian Ladwa), in hopes to build their family. Decades later and despite all the Briererly’s unconditional love and support, Saroo feels a pain nagging at his conscience – one that forces him to search for his biological family.
In Davis’ effort to court mass appeal, the picture does take a few exciting bold risks. The first third plays like a foreign film – something that might shock unsuspecting audiences. To them I say, “Screw you: you read those subtitles!” And this is the strongest portion of LION. Undeniably, we’re putty in the director’s hands seeing this angelic, adorable street urchin put into peril countless times. Sure, it’s manipulative to the point of emotional exploitation. However, compared to the rest of the movie, which plays out like a straightforward cable TV movie, Act One is a stand out.
Act Two makes sense, but also feels a tad cobbled together. I didn’t care one iota about Saroo’s romance with classmate Lucy (Rooney Mara). Saroo’s struggle to comprehend these long buried memories isn’t handled as effortlessly as the opening act. Did he bury his own personal wants to satiate the desires of his adoptive parents? There’s a line about it (which irks me as it goes against “show – don’t tell”), but the film doesn’t allow you to really linger on the weight of that heartbreaking concept. Also, the memories don’t come flooding back until he eats Indian food whilst away from home for the first time. Had he never encountered another Indian person or ate the food since he left India?! The oil-and-vinegar adoptive brother dynamic is also left fairly unexplored. Again, they broach it, but don’t really go deep. Why not dig into that in this same amount of run time?
The final five minutes hit like a punch in the throat. Most will weep openly by then. I didn’t, but I get it. I just hoped the filmmakers wouldn’t have been so obvious about their intent. The mechanics of stealing our tears overshadows the picture’s naturalism. Kidman, who inevitably will be called “brave” because she sports minimal makeup and cries throughout 75% of her lines, helps tug on the heartstrings like they are puppet strings. We can almost see her and Patel doing this and it made me less engaged – cynical even.
So at the next gathering I attend, when someone asks why I didn’t love LION, I can point to this and say (to quote a friend), “It’s well documented.”
LION opens on November 25.