I haven’t read the book this movie is based on, but it’s a compelling story as the movie represents it. The movie manages to take a story that could easily cross over into schmaltz and make it feel very human and relatable. This story, of a young child separated from his family who eventually finds his way back home (spoilers lol) as a young man, smacks of Oscar bait and Lifetime level movie making. But the cast really elevates things. Sunny Pawar is wonderful in the opening, often really frightening section as the young Saroo, separated from his family, in one of the most bizarre ways possible, by being trapped on an abandoned train and transported across the country. Dev Patel gives another great performance as the young man version of Saroo. Patel is, let’s be frank, a great actor constrained by his ethnicity. In the last couple of years, he’s given two really great performances in this movie and in The Man Who Knew Infinity and they couldn’t be more different in terms of character journeys, base temperament, even physical type, but Patel knocks them both out of the park. It’s the honesty of his performance that really helps us accept Saroo as a real person. Nicole Kidman is wonderful and Rooney Mara gives life to a character that is kind of underwritten. David Wenham has a thankless part but he, along with Kidman, exudes such warmth and positivity that he really registers. There’s an incredibly creepy section of the film in which Pawar encounters Tannishtha Chatterjee & Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a man & woman who initially seem friendly, but turn out to have a strange, and not entirely explicated, agenda of their own; Chatterjee & Siddiqui are both brilliant. Siddiqui has only one scene in the film, but it’s one of the most memorable and frightening. The film mostly avoids feeling forced or manipulative in the emotions it evokes. The climactic scene is, unfortunately, the main scene where things do feel forced and false; Patel himself fumbles pretty badly in that scene and I wasn’t surprised at all when I looked online after seeing the film and saw that it was the first scene filmed. It’s clear that Patel’s connection to the character isn’t fully in place and it’s too bad that the emotional impact of the film is marred by a failed climax. But, in spite of that, I’m not going to be able to ding this one too much. The performances are too good and the emotional impact of the majority of the film is too genuine for me to feel cheated when the film missteps, even if that misstep is at the most crucial moment of the film. It’s a film that could very easily have failed completely and landed in the arena of cheesy, feel-good slop. But the emotions are genuine and the connection is on a human level for most of the film and I was very pleasantly surprised by that. Is it flawed? Yes. Is it still good enough to get a recommendation? Absolutely. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – Lion avoids feeling cheesy or manipulative for most of its running time by virtue of a wonderful, fully committed cast; a few missteps near the end aside, it’s a wonderful, evocative film. 3 ½ stars.