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 Post subject: Garth Davis: Lion (2016)
PostPosted: Sun Dec 18, 2016 5:37 pm 
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Lost boy

The long early passage of Lion evokes two of the most classic experiences of vicarious deprivation found in the movies: the desperate little boy hunting for his father's stolen bike in Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di biciclette, and the haunting wartime scene of two little siblings wandering apart in the train station at the end of René Clément's Les jeux interdits. In Lion, it's a poor Indian boy named Saroo (the adorable Sunny Pawar), five years old, dozing in a station and waiting for his older brother, who finds himself trapped in a decommissioned train that takes him 1600 kilometers from home, so he's lost and can never find his way back.

Saroo's older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate, pretty adorable also), had to go out in the middle of the night to work at the station, and Saroo insisted on coming alone but couldn't stay awake. The tragic neorealist moment arrives when Saroo awakes and calls out "Guddu, Guddu, Guddu!" and then foolishly climbs onto a standing train to sleep again. He will never see Guddu again, or see his sweet-faced mother (Priyanka Bose) for 25 years.

This early section of the movie is great. TV and commercials director Garth Davis, for whom this is the feature film debut, deserves all credit for delivering Saroo's harrowing early experience very purely and immersively, enriching it with specific detail but adding nothing unnecessary. This part of the film is not at all manipulative, a great story simply told, almost worthy of something in Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy. But while Lion has strong emotional passages that will fill up all your handkerchiefs, it also contains some lacunae. Overall, it's how it grafts the less interesting "found" part onto the devastating "lost" part that leads to some difficulties.

The locked train has taken Saroo all the way to Calcutta, and what happens to him there is a muted, compelling picaresque adventure. After escaping from some unscrupulous people grooming him for he knows not what, running away from them, surviving again and eventually moved from one center to another, Saroo, whose photo was published in a Calcutta newspaper with 15 million readers, is finally judged to be a truly lost or abandoned child, and suitable for adoption. He is sent off to be adopted by a couple in Tasmania, and they give him a loving home. Twenty-five years later he finally finds his way home using Google Maps. After he is reunited with his mother, he remains in Australia, which now he can fully acknowledge is his primary home, but he maintains contact with his birth mother and Indian family.

The way Saroo gets lost has that haunting quality of dreams. How much more lost could you be? He doesn't even understand how far from home he is. In Calcutta they all speak Bengali, and he knows only a dialect of Hindi. The middle class comforts five-year-old Saroo meets with in Tasmania amount to great wealth and comfort for him. There is every evidence in Nicole Kidman and David Wenham's portrayals of adoptive parents Sue and John Briarley, that they are an unusually gentle and caring couple. At the adoption center in India we've already see Saroo and his fellows taught words like "fork" and "spoon," "salt" and "pepper," and how to eat with eating utensils instead of one's fingers. Armed with these and other talents, little Saroo is a quiet, cooperative boy who adapts well.

Then comes the sudden leap forward when little Saroo becomes Dev Patel, the British actor of Indian descent, who has learned Indian accents before, and this time mastered a tricky Australian one. He has played silly (in the BBC series "Skins," where he was discovered for the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire), and nerdy (in Slumdog itself, or, with his own normal UK accent, as an IT whiz for "Newsroom"), and, doing an Indian accent again, brilliant, as maths genius S. Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity. This time the story is somewhat slim, but the film seeks to make it emotionally complex. Patel has added physical bulk, with a muscled-up torso and a mane of hair to live up to Saroo's real name: Saroo was a mispronunciation; it really wan'st "saroo" but "Sher," शेर, which means "lion." The Dev Patel with new gravitas and sex appeal is impressive enough to require showing off shirtless in scenes with Rooney Mara. Mara plays the rather wasted role of Saroo's girlfriend, Lucy, met at a hotel management course. Now he enters an identity crisis, quits his hotel job, and is troublingly distant toward Lucy and very worrying to Sue.

Kidman will provide an unexpected revelation in a strong late scene. Grownup Saroo will begin obsessively talking about how much he misses his brother and mother, and mapping his virtual search of India and its train lines. But there are some steps missing in the way the film flips over 25 years from adoption and Australian youth to Saroo's obsessive search using Goodle Earth. Did he live happily ever after till one day after starting hotel work he suddenly became deeply troubled? Now he says he thinks about it every day - but if so, how did he live with that all those years? What brought it to a head? That's aside from how mystifying it remains, despite the film's virtually-showing it, that a guy could zero in on little details of an Indian town he lived in at age five when located blurrily on a computer 25 years later. Though this is, apparently, what really happened.

The other big gap, a topic troublingly introduced but left unexplained, is the story behind the second adopted Indian brother, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav; Divian Ladwa), who arrives a year or so after Saroo does. We see Mantosh then, and in several scenes when they're both grown up. He appears to be autistic, or disturbed, and his effect on their adoptive mother Sue bothers and angers Saroo, who has an uneasy relationship with Mantosh.

Ultimately, for all Dev Patel's charm, he turns out to be mainly just the engine by which the absorbing adventure of the lost boy is linked with the detective story of using Google Earth. But the emotionality of the story and the charisma of its (adult) embodiment, plus the Weinstein brothers' eagerness for a return to high visibility means a push toward Oscars. While as Variety reviewer Peter Debruge points out, despite making a sensitive, tasteful film, ad-film vet Davis has still wound up in his feature debut making a commercial: for Google.

But on top of that, even if it's a bit disjointed, Lion seems destined to be the feel-good movie of the year.

Lion, 118 mins., debuted at Toronto; 17 other festivals. First US release 25 Nov. 2016. Bay Area 16 Dec. UK 20 Jan. 2017.


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