There is a reason why fiction films tend to stay in the cinematic zeitgeist much longer than non-fiction films do. Stories based in reality force the filmmakers to stick to certain guidelines, and that allows their fictional counterparts to play with a much more expansive palate of choices. Even worse are the non-fiction films that don’t try to take risks with their narrative. Lion, the tale of an Indian boy who becomes separated from his family and sets out to look for them two decades later, is one of those films. Yet Lion is able to survive on an odd use of time and a phenomenal cast that allows the film to overcome a very derivative plot.
Lion is the cinematic version of the real life story of Saroo Brierley (played by Sunny Pawar as a child and by Dev Patel as an adult). Saroo became separated from his family on a journey with his brother and was forced to survive as an orphan until he was adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and the underrated David Wenham). A couple of decades later, Saroo’s obsession with finding his family again is beginning to take control of his life. He must now either make a breakthrough in his search or let his once successful life fall apart.
This is director Garth Davis’ first feature film. He cut his teeth with a few episodes on the critically acclaimed Australian series, Top of the Lake, but his lack of experience does reveal itself at times during this film. Yet, the man clearly has some talent. Davis goes out of his way (and not always for the best) to make this a beautiful looking film, and while he is certainly constrained by the straight forward plot of this film, Davis plays with the way time works in this film in a very interesting way. You never know just how much time has passed between any given scene in this film until Davis gives you a subtle hint here or there. That ultimately gives the film a dream-like feeling that adds a lot to a very derivative narrative.
It also helps that this film has a dynamite cast to play with. This film features Dev Patel’s best work to date. He captures the sometime tricky Australian accent perfectly and still has enough energy left to display a great amount of range in his performance. Patel clearly has the potential to be a star, and a good actor to boot. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman does some subtle work in a role that normally demands loudness. It makes the film even better. David Wenham also makes the most of a role that doesn’t really get to be at the center of attention. The one weak link may be Sunny Pawar, who almost survives by his charm but is unfairly asked to carry the entire film on his shoulders for almost an hour.
Lion rises above the typical based on real life film thanks to a strong cast and interesting directorial choice.