Lion is This Year’s Empty Oscar Bait
Manipulative, predictable, and vanilla.
Each year, viewers and critics are getting better at spotting the films that exist for the single purpose of awards consideration. The biggest “Oscar-bait” criminal comes in the form of one Harvey Weinstein. The mega-producer is known for producing films such as Chicago and Shakespeare in Love, both of which brought in many of the desired golden statuettes. These days, Weinstein’s gambles have fallen flat with films such as Southpaw and Big Eyes failing to meet the producer’s awards season expectations. It seems that hungry Harvey will do just about anything for an Oscar now, which has resulted in his latest misfire, Lion.
Part white savior story, part Google Earth commercial, Garth Davis’s film follows a young man’s journey to find home. Living an impoverished life in a small Indian village Saroo (Dev Patel) spends his days helping his brother steal coal, before returning to his mother’s dilapidated shack. One evening, after following his brother to do night work, Saroo walks onto an idled train, which suddenly begins to move. Trapped, Saroo sits on the train for days before finally escaping in Calcutta. Lost and unable to speak the native Bengali, Saroo is eventually put into the foster care system. With aids unable to find his home, Saroo is sent to Australia, where he is to be adopted by John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). Twenty year later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) discovers Google Earth, and decides to use it to find his home.
True story or not, there is no denying that Lion is a largely empty film. A paint-by-numbers production, Lion is following a simple set of instructions for achieving an emotional response from its audience. With each emotion meticulously mapped out it becomes rather difficult to engage in the supposedly moving journey. The clichéd score is telling the viewer when and what to feel. It is a manipulative strategy that we have seen over and over again, only usually with a better attempt to mask the emotional puppetry.
All involved appear to know exactly what they’re in for. It is all quite unfortunate, considering that Dev Patel gives a dedicated, vulnerable performance. The other characters simply function as props. Nicole Kidman once again gives the heavy-handed performance she has been effortlessly turning out for the past ten years. The only redeeming thing about Kidman’s performance is her various wigs, the first of which makes her looks like a mix of Lucille Ball and Pennywise the Clown. Rooney Mara also appears in a thankless role as Saroo’s girlfriend Ruby. One of the best young actresses is in the business, Mara is usually known for her challenging, fearless roles. I have to imagine that her part here is the result of some Faustian deal the actress made with Weinstein to get her role in Carol.
We should not only place the blame on Weinstein here. The guy is just trying to make some money while adding to his trophy collection. Let’s also blame Davis as well as screenwriter Luke Davies. The two have chosen to depict India as filthy, disgusting country, never once taking the moment to expose the beautiful landscapes or rich culture. They have set up a narrative in which a Indian boy’s life is only given real value when he is sent to be raised by the Australian bourgeoisie, a couple who adopted because they “wanted to help.”
Lion starts out just fine, but after thirty minutes, any viewer who decides to employ logical thought will know exactly where things are heading. If one wants to turn off their emotional inhibitions, then the saccharine finale may draw a couple tears. The inquisitive filmgoer, on the other hand, will see Lion for exactly what it is: plain vanilla schmaltz.