The first notable aspect of Lion, the international homecoming story from Garth Davis, is the abrupt sound design. The vibrant score of piano and strings that accompany massive birds-eye-view shots of the countryside is immediately striking.
The mechanical dissonance of trains and people in a busy market are contrasted by immense silences, as when Saroo (Sunny Pawar) loses his brother Guddu (Abishek Bharate) in a train station. When the train pulls off with Saroo alone in a stowaway car, the mechanized rotation of the train fills the sound space as rapid editing personifies the surprised anxiety of the abandoned Saroo.
Lion is dictated by this juxtaposition. Lulls of quiet are quickly interrupted by surprise sforzandos, flurries of blurred action. It is a balance that is quite effective in the setup of the film.
In Lion, casting found quite a strong young actor in Pawar (his first film), who carries the workload through the first half of the film. The child’s lengthy character arc from abandonment to adoption is rather fascinating.
The character himself is given an emotional journey, and the almost episodic asides present a satisfactory look at the lower socioeconomic class of India. The best part of the narrative is that it takes its time, as opposed to presenting a fragmentary origin to expedite the character to adulthood. Ellipsis is necessary, of course, but the boy’s childhood is given plenty of air to develop.
The film probes at additional themes that are only given superficial treatment. The idea of grappling with the culture clash of not truly understanding your heritage is fascinating, but it is quickly done away with in lieu of Google Earth.
The drama of the second half of the film does not stack up to the furious disorientation of the first. The second half surely disorients with its tightly framed closeups that fade in and out of focus, but this feels excessive in comparison to the more finessed isolation of the first half of the film.
The two halves of Lion present an intriguing narrative construction, but it cannot help but be more compelling on one side over the other. Saroo’s search feels like a foregone conclusion from the idea’s conception, making the journey come across as tedious. The fate of young Saroo, also a foregone conclusion to anyone who saw the film’s trailer or knows the real life story, still feels exciting because the world is constructed as frantic and helpless.
We feel for young Saroo. Adult Saroo is a wallowing sad sack who alienates himself from his loved ones for seemingly no reason. The melodrama by which Saroo and his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) fade in and out of each others’ lives is reductive from the grand scheme of the film. It is circular and groan-worthy in its insistence. Even the final discovery in Saroo’s Google Earth journey is a deus ex machina moment that completely downplays the entire search. With this under-cutting, the film diffuses the importance of the already tedious second half.
Lion is the rare film with a clear dividing line of quality, and it is a radical shift on that axis.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)