The Oscar-roar emanating from "Lion," a true tale of a young Indian-Australian adoptee using Google Earth to find his birth mother 25 years after being separated from her, is head-scratching. The story defies belief but feels so contrived and obvious in the hands of first-time director Garth Davis.
The only thing award-worthy is the performance of Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Indian boy. It's love at first sight in the opening moments when we meet Saroo (Pawar) and his older brother, Guddu (a terrific Abhishek Bharate). Saroo quickly becomes lost at a train station, wakes up on an empty train running express to Calcutta. Pawar owns the first act, as the young Saroo fights for survival in the slums of Calcutta, where he doesn't know the language or the direction home. Pawar conveys through his expressive almond-shaped brown eyes and body language all the fear and resiliency of a terrified and homesick 5-year-old boy who just wants his mum. These scenes with Saroo on the streets, sleeping on cardboard and eventually landing in an orphanage are the film's strongest.
When an Australian couple played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham adopts him, the whole movie changes -- not just in location. It feels like two different films, one gritty and one gauzy. Saroo grows up and is played by a beefed-up Dev Patel ("Slumdog Millionaire") as a man stuck between two cultures. Rooney Mara ("Carol") is trapped in the prop-up-your-man role as Saroo's girlfriend. Patel, who was terrific earlier this year as a math genius in "The Man Who Knew Infinity," is a prisoner of a second act padded with scenes of him moping, brooding, Googling and sticking colored push pins into the maps of India strewn about his tiny apartment. His obsession with finding his village soon takes a toll on Saroo's relationship with his girlfriend and his adoptive parents, from whom he hides his search.
As adoptive mom Sue Brierley, Kidman gets to deliver a Big Speech (read: Oscar bait) about motherhood and family. It's all rather trite and unaffecting and manipulative. Davis, working from a script by Luke Davies, adapting Saroo's Brierly's memoir, "The Long Way Home," opts for melodrama in all forms -- girlfriend problems, troubled siblings, contemplative walks on the beach, all set to a soundtrack that includes Sia's "Never Give Up." It's heavy-handed for sure. The filmmakers introduce themes of race, identity and class, then tosses them aside.
The final scenes, when the action returns to India, can't help but pack an emotional punch because it recalls that vastly superior first act when we fell in love with Saroo. However, your tears will dry quickly because this mangy "Lion" has no bite.
-- Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Rooney Mara.
(PG-13 or thematic material and some sensuality.)