If you try to picture the moment Harvey Weinstein first heard the true story that inspired Lion, it’s not hard to imagine Oscar statuettes appearing, Looney Tunes–style, in his eyes. The awards hopeful follows a young Australian man, adopted from India, who spends years searching Google Earth and eventually finds the biological family from whom he was separated as a child. With a real-life triumph of the human spirit like that, the trailer’s intertitles write themselves: “The unforgettable story … of one man’s search … for home.”
But unless you like long montages of mouse clicks set to inspiring music, that unbelievable story, stretched over a two-hour run time, has made for a pretty dull movie. In fact, Lion seems poised to be the perfect test case for whether Weinstein still possesses his famous, unparalleled talent for spinning even a mediocre movie into Oscar gold.
Lion’s poster trumpets big names Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Top of the Lake’s David Wenham, and Nicole Kidman, but none of these actors appear until about halfway through the movie. Instead, the movie opens in 1986 with Saroo as a young boy in Khandwa, India, where his single mother works the unenviable job of lugging around rocks. Young Saroo is played by the impossibly adorable 8-year-old actor Sunny Pawar, who may shortly replace Jacob Tremblay in your heart. When Saroo and his older brother, Guddu, trek to a nearby train station in search of work, Saroo falls asleep in an empty train car, only to wake up when the train is already in motion. By the time he’s able to exit the train, he is 1,600 miles away, in Kolkata, West Bengal.
Pawar appears more than capable of carrying this half of the movie, but first-time feature filmmaker Garth Davis (who previously directed Wenham in Top of the Lake) and screenwriter Luke Davies (a fellow Aussie) don’t trust his expressive, Bambi-sized brown eyes to do the work. Instead, they make him utter to himself such lines as “Mom, I love you very much. Guddu, I miss you very much” (in case you didn’t know that a 5-year-old, lost in an unfamiliar land, might miss his mother and big brother). Alone and unable to speak Bengali, Saroo and the other street urchins he meets must dodge a procession of strange men—the movie could easily leave a viewer with the unfortunate impression that just about all the men in Kolkata are either exploitative gangsters or pedophiles. It’s during this section that the movie most strongly echoes Patel’s breakout film, the Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire. (Lion hasn’t yet been saddled with the slippery label “poverty porn,” the way that Millionaire was for its own depiction of “slumdogs”—the movie’s coinage—but if it stays in the Oscar race, it’s probably only a matter of time.)
Of course, Hollywood is only interested in telling the stories of the orphans who make it out, and Saroo eventually finds in a home in Hobart, Australia, where he is warmly embraced by adoptive parents Wenham, Kidman, and Kidman’s distracting red wig. (The actress apparently still hasn’t learned the lesson of the nose.) After an interlude during which Saroo learns the comforts of a nice life in Australia, the film finally flashes forward 20 years to show that Saroo has become … a total babe.
For all the ways Lion underwhelms, the one metric per which it can be rated a spectacular success is as a star-making vehicle for Patel. Now 26 years old and light-years away from the lanky young man of Slumdog or even 2015’s Chappie, Patel (for some reason) sports a body in Lion that is positively Hemsworthian. This development, combined with Patel’s expertly modulated performance (delivered in an equally Hemsworthian Australian accent), suggests that Marvel should come knocking to cast the British actor as its next superhero of Indian ancestry.
Each of the movie’s two name actresses (despite her two Oscar nominations, Mara is left to do little more than play Saroo’s supportive girlfriend) gets a turn at a tear-streaked monologue, but it’s only the film’s inevitable homecoming scene—perfectly timed for the family reunions of Thanksgiving—that seems likely to leave viewers shedding tears of their own. Like that gut-wrenching sequence in Interstellar in which Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut must learn everything that’s happened to his family over the last 23 years in about two minutes, Saroo learns all that’s happened to his own family in the past two decades during a brief encounter in the street—and not all of the news is good.
There are occasional glimpses of a more provocative movie in Lion, such as when an adult Saroo looks around his comfortable life and ponders the mind-boggling happenstance that has gifted him with his privilege or when it briefly appears that the movie might explore why his mother specifically wants to adopt “brown” children. But instead, Lion goes again and again where you expect it to, delivering little more than the awards-season equivalent of Homeward Bound. It’s no surprise when the onlookers who gather around in that reunion scene burst into spontaneous applause.
But hand it to Harvey Weinstein. Even though almost none of the critics who saw Lion at this year’s festivals thought it was more than just OK, the movie is almost universally expected to earn a Best Picture nomination. As the credits roll, and Sia sings a song that offers up the movie’s only real message (“Never Give Up”), you realize that Lion was, truly, an inspiring true-life story of one man … searching for one thing: another Oscar.