After watching Lion I thought about when people say a movie is “manipulative.” Usually that’s not a compliment, but I think all movies and books and plays are manipulative. The creators are trying to make us feel a certain way, to set us up for the cry, the laugh, or the thrill. When someone says a movie is too manipulative, it’s usually because the manipulation is obvious. A good movie manipulates you without you even knowing it. Lion is a movie where you feel manipulated at every turn.
Lion is not a bad movie. It’s directed competently by Garth Davis in his debut, and he is able to incorporate Google Earth as part of the story without it seeming completely ridiculous. The acting, especially by Dev Patel, is strong. But the script by Luke Davies, and even the entire premise, is full of road signs telling us how to feel and when.
The story, which is true, has a little Indian boy following his brother to take a train to a job. The older boy leaves his brother to sleep on a bench, but the little brother gets curious and finds himself on an empty train, where he falls asleep. He awakes on a moving and empty train, with doors that won’t open. The train finally stops in Calcutta, a thousand miles away. He doesn’t know his mother’s name (and she is illiterate) and butchers the name of his home town.
He ends up in an orphanage, where he is taken in by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and grows up to be Dev Patel. He has a pretty nice life, though the couple adopt a second Indian child who has a lot of problems. But when Patel gets to be in his twenties he starts to think more about his family left in India, and how they must have gone crazy looking for him. Some friends, including his girlfriend, Rooney Mara, urge him to use Google Earth, because he remembers certain things about the train station. He gets obsessed, looking at every train station within a certain radius of Calcutta.
So what, exactly, is the point of Lion? We know how this puppy is going to end from before we even take our seats, if we read anything about it or even look at the poster. Is it simply to have a good cry? Is it to highlight the atrocious way India takes care of its children (an end card states that 80,000 Indian children go missing every year, which kind of startled me, not because of the number, which is horrible, but because the film was not a polemic)? I’m not really sure. Okay, I did get teary at the end–it would be hard not to unless you have a piece of coal for a heart, but I hated myself for it.
Lion is really a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie with top-drawer talent. For people who like that sort of thing, go for it. But it’s being mentioned as a Best Picture Oscar contender and this is very wrong. Patel, should he get a nomination, would be worthy. Kidman has a weepy scene that may earn her a nomination, but it’s only because she’s Nicole Kidman. An unknown actress wouldn’t get a sniff.