Warning: Review Contains Spoilers
Harvey Weinstein is a guy who’s ultimately probably done more good than bad for the film world, but man does he do some annoying things sometimes. Of course Weinstein is instrumental in making independent film go mainstream back in the 90s and he’s also helped introduce a number of foreign films to the American market and he’s also helped Quentin Tarantino be the wonderful maverick that he is but there’s always been a dark side to his empire. He used to be notorious for buying up foreign films, especially Asian genre films, and then sitting on them for years instead of actually releasing them. He is also of course infamous for tampering with movies to make them palatable to less sophisticated audiences, a practice that earned him the nickname “Harvey Scissorhands.” But most of all when I think of Harvey Weinstein I think of all the lame mawkish movies that he’s tried to sell to the film-going public because he (often correctly) thinks they’ll be eaten up by the more basic members of the Academy and earn money off of Oscar buzz. These are movies that serious cinephilles don’t really want anything to do with, but they end up having weigh in on them anyway because they get sold as “art films” when they are in fact anything but. The new film Lion certainly had the look of everything that’s wrong with Weinstein’s brand, but I had heard some people defend it as something that’s better than it looks, so I was willing to give it a go.
The film follows the life of Saroo (Played by Sunny Pawar as a child and Dev Patel as an adult), a four or five year old boy living in a very impoverished Indian village. One evening his slightly older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) reluctantly takes him along with him to his night job but decides to leave him to wait at the train station. When Guddu takes a very long time to return Saroo boards a train thinking his brother is on it only to then be locked inside the train as it proceeds to travel a very long distance without routinely stopping. By the time the young boy finally finds his way off the train it has gone as far as Calcutta. Lost, the boy lives on the streets for a while and when he’s finally rescued by authorities he’s unable to locate his home on the map and because his family is in such a remote and impoverished area they have no way to find him either. Finally the boys ends up in an orphanage and ends up being adopted by an Australian couple named Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) who also adopt another boy from India named Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav as a child, Divian Ladwa in adulthood), but as Saroo gets older he begins to get more and more curious about where his parents are and how to find them.
The first third of Lion, which depicts Saroo being lost as a child, is almost certainly the strongest part of the film. This section of the movie, which is entirely in Hindi and Bengali, functions as a strong little short film of sorts and tells this neat Dickensian story about a scrappy kid’s journey. I think that the main problem with the film is that everyone involved in the making of it seems to find this true story to be a lot more “extraordinary” than I do. When Saroo finally begins searching for his family he doesn’t do it through some sophisticated detective work or by tirelessly knocking on every door or by doing some grand publicity campaign. No, he literally just does some google searching. To say that this is a very un-cinematic means of going on a lifelong quest is quite the understatement. To spice up the drama in this segment the film tries to focus in on Saroo’s existential guilt about his family not knowing where he is, but the way they externalize this guilt to the audience was rather tedious and at a certain point almost made me resent the character as he moped on the screen for something like forty minutes. I don’t completely want to dismiss what the guy was going through but when you watch the film you can’t help but think: “dude, you have two seemingly saintly adoptive parents supporting you, you seem to be fairly wealthy, you look like Dev Patel, your girlfriend looks like Rooney Mara, and yet all you can do is whine about this one less than perfect thing in your life. Get over it and move on.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that the transition between “third world problems” to “first world problems” in the movie can be rather jarring.
There are other little things about this second half that annoy me. The sub-plot about Saroo’s adopted brother, for example, ultimately goes nowhere and seems like this half-baked element that was thrown in both because they felt obligated to add an element from the true story and because they needed to pad the running time. I also kind of hated the very end of the movie, by which I mean the title cards that summarize things at the end. Specifically I kind of despise a card that flashes on the screen at the end which announces something along the lines of “there are [x number] of missing children in India, go to [x charity’s URL] to help the cause.” This is ridiculous, firstly because no movie should end by encouraging people to go to a website, and secondly because it implies that this movie was in any way made to raise awareness of this or any other issue when it very clearly wasn’t. Saroo Brierley is in no way a representative example of the kind of missing children this charity is fighting for and his predicament is not presented as any sort of indictment of any system or institution so much as an unfortunate accident possibly borne of the family’s poverty. That title card exists solely to make the movie feel more important than it is and I’m almost positive it was added in by Harvey Weinstein as it reminded me a lot of his rather cynical attempt a couple years back to re-paint The Imitation Game as a statement about pardoning people convicted under England’s “indecency” laws. I realize this seems like a goofy thing to nitpick about but I think it’s emblematic of this movie’s problem: it’s taking a moderately interesting human interest story and treating it like something it’s not: namely something they needed to make a feature length movie about.