The Also-Rans Project — Lion (Best Picture Also-Ran 2016)

Lion (2016 film).pngDirected by Garth Davis

Screenplay by Luke Davies, based upon the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierly

Starring Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham and Nicole Kidman

Fact: Authenticity matters.  If there is nothing else we value more in this world than authenticity, I don’t know what it is.  After all, we live in a world where posers are shamed, “fake news” is openly scorned (even when the news itself is not fake and the idiot screaming “fake news” just doesn’t have any substantive response to the reporting), and ‘Trolls” are called “Trolls” for a reason.

And why do we value authenticity?  Because when somebody is not authentic they are, in essence, lying to the world.  And nobody likes a liar.

Ultimately, authenticity is truth.

When I think about authenticity it never fails that the first movie in my mind is It Might Get Loud, the documentary about Jack White, Jimmy Page, and The Edge getting together to jam.  In that movie, there is one authentic musician, Jimmy Page, who just is what he is and never makes himself to be more than just a guitar player.  There is no pretense about him, or any pretense to his music – it just is.  There is one authentic phony in the movie, Jack White, who is serious about his music, and the guitar, and wants to experience it in an authentically-primal way, even as most everything else about him is a decidedly-phony put-on.  He is the authentic phony.  The straight out phony of the movie is The Edge, who drowns his guitar playing in so much effects and manipulation that he doesn’t seem to be playing guitar at all, ergo, the real phony.  Which is sad to me, because The Edge is such a delightful and effacing man in the movie it pains me to criticize him.

This notion, of authenticity, is also at the heart of the movie Lion, which makes the point that in order to know who you are, you have to know where you’re from.  Because if you don’t know where you been, you’ll never know where you are.

Image result for sunny pawarWhat’s It About?

Dateline India, mid-1980s.  Saroo, a five year-old boy (Pewar), lives in poverty with his mother, older brother, and younger sister.  The father is nowhere to be found.  One night, while the mother is out working, the older brother goes off to do some scrounging for money and food.  Reluctantly, he takes Saroo with him.  After they become separated, because Saroo is tired, while his brother is not, Saroo falls asleep on a train and wakes to find himself 1600 km from where he started and no idea how to get back.  As it turns out, 5 year-old boys in India aren’t good about what their parent’s names are, where they are from, and pretty much everything else.  Eventually, when his home and mother cannot be found from the little information he provides, Saroo is adopted and sent off to live in Australia.  Twenty-five years later, after being thoroughly haunted by his own disappearance and wanting to find his origins, the adult Saroo (Patel), turns to Google Earth for answers.

Strengths?

Really, the main strength of the movie is how it tells the story.  Unlike most Hollywood films – or most films in general – there is no metaphorical battering ram deployed here in service of the story, nor are any spoons used.[1]  Indeed, it intentionally avoids beating you with the plot points screaming, “See!  See!”

Rather, it is perfectly understated and gives only as much as is needed.  That said, saying it doesn’t do what most Hollywood films does is really only damning it with faint praise, and the praise should not be faint, given this film was honestly well-told and made the most of its material.[2]  It should be genuinely appreciated on those grounds.

In a way, the film felt a little bit like a Malick film.  No, not one of the latter-day films, what with all the whispering voiceover and the fields of swaying grass.  You know, the ones everybody hates and is bored to tears by but watch anyway because they’re Malick and there might be just a little genius in them?  No, this is more like early-Malick, Badlands Malick, when he was just getting his feet under him and playing about with the form.  As in that film there are a handful of lyrical, purely visual moments meant to be poetic, but there as here, these are wrapped around the more straightforward story of the film.

Aiding the way it’s told is the visual look of the film.  No, I don’t mean the cinematography, which is fine – if this film is unlike anything in the Malick oeuvre at all, it’s that it’s content with achieving great, but not transcendent visuals.  No, when I say the ‘visual look’ I mean the mise en scene.  Consider the film Slumdog Millionaire, which shows us an India overflowing with bodies.  Or the Bourne franchise – whenever it drops onto the Indian subcontinent you’d believe the whole of the earth’s population was focused right there.  Not to mention, Gandhi, what with its scenes of thousands of extras.

In contrast, Lion does it different.  Yes, there are times when the massive population is undeniable, but just as often Lion shows us something different – it shows desertion.  It shows desolation.  It shows the pockets of outright loneliness amongst the teeming masses.  It presents an India I didn’t know existed, which is the almost-mundane India.

If you needed more proof that India is not some giant homogenous land, just consider that one of the things that really sets this story in motion – or keeps it going – is the fact that different parts of the country speak different languages.  After all, when Saroo arrives in Kolkata from the train he can’t quite explain himself out of the situation to anyone of authority because he speaks Hindi, while the people around him speak Bengali.  You imagine culture clashes when going from country to country, but you don’t expect them so much when within your same country.  And here, where there is a perfect storm of events, the effect can be devastating.

Last, while it’s no spoiler to say Saroo finds his mother – you’d have to have been living under a rock to not know it, because everything about this movie gave that away – and while it’s no surprise the movie manipulates emotion out of when they do reunite, the end of the movie was still genuinely moving and I defy any of you hard-hearted bastards to tell me you didn’t shed a little tear when you got there.

Image result for rooney mara lionWho Am I Again?

While I appreciated much of the film, and was genuinely moved by it, it is not without it’s flaws.  The most glaring is that neither Rooney Mara, as the love interest, nor David Wenham, as the adoptive father, have real parts.  Wenham’s role is to just look dad-like – put’s his hands on the kid’s shoulder in a reassuring way, gives him approving nods, that sort of thing.  If he can project as a certain level of warmth, which Wenham can do with his eyes closed it’s a job well-done.  Still, it would be nice if there were more for him to do.

The problem with Mara’s character is more glaring because, while she does get to be a bit of the antagonist to get Saroo going on his search for his mother, she was not actually given a name in the film for about 15 minutes after her first lines.  And it’s not like she spoke, disappeared, then came back – no, she was fairly present once she showed up because she’s the freaking love-interest.  I didn’t notice it right away, but given the film made sure we knew that the little boy is Saroo, and his brother is Guddu, and his adoptive mom is Anne, and his adoptive father is John, and his adoptive brother is Mantosh, it was weird that there wasn’t an explicit calling out of her name from the start.  And it wasn’t for 15 minutes before I realized something was wrong with Mara’s character, which was she had no name.  Only then did they call her Lucy.

And that, in a nutshell, is everything that is wrong with Mara’s character – she is so thin, such a basic non-entity, that she almost didn’t rate a name.

Curiously, as wasted as Mara is in the part, this is easily the performance of her’s I’ve connected with most.  Too often she seems cold to me, or distanced, or…or there was always something just not right with her for me.  Sure, she was fine in Carol, but I identified more with Blanchet’s Carol than Mara’s Therese, mostly because of my age and life experiences, but also because Mara didn’t quite sell it for me.  That said, as weak as her particular part was here, I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated her more.

Is There Enough?

Lion is just short of two hours long.  Half the movie is given over to young Saroo getting lost/being lost/adopted, while the second half is given over to finding Saroo’s mother.  In both respects, spending an hour on each story seems okay.  The problem, though, is one of conflict and action.

In the getting lost/being lost/adopted sequences, there is an inherent tension in the story.  After all, this is the story of a little boy lost, trying to figure things out in an unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar language.  The very premise has built-in conflict, as we expect any number of horrors to befall our little hero.  The very nature of the story propels itself.

By contrast, in the ‘finding mom’ sequences, the story literally has no tension.  Yes, there is the ultimate question of whether he’ll find his mom or not, but that’s not much of a mystery because we already know before the first image hits the screen that they will be reunited.  Beyond that, there are no other questions, or tensions, or conflict to go along with it.  There are really no obstacles to overcome, other than the passage of time.  Indeed, this section is almost literally an hour spent alternately looking at Google Earth and complaining that “Nobody understands where I’m coming from!”  Unfortunately, neither of those two things, on their own, are enough to push along the film.  Realistically, the second half could have been boiled down to about fifteen minutes without losing anything, and that, dear reader, is a truism about all film and literature – without conflict, without tension, what is the point of reading/watching a thing.[3]

Image result for dev patel lionWho’s The Star of This Movie?

Dev Patel is listed first on the movie poster for this film.  He was also listed first on the Blu-Ray box.  He plays the character the movie is about, and is in more than half of the film as that character.  Why then was he nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars?  After all, if he’s not the star of the film, who is?

Perhaps the lead is Sunny Pewar, who plays the young version of Saroo, and appears in just short of half the film.  But if he is the lead, then how could somebody with more screen time than he, who also plays the same character (Patel) be considered a supporting player?

Perhaps the argument to be made is that, because this was a bit of an ensemble pic – sort of – then nobody is the lead, and they were all supporting players.  But I always believed that the stars of the movie were like your entrée at dinner – the protein, if you please – while the supporting characters were all side dishes.  If we follow through on the ‘everybody is a supporting player’ logic, then, are we to accept sometimes the entrée at dinner doesn’t exist and all there is a side dishes?  Like, there’s no steak at this meal, only a baked potato, and a salad, and some green beans and another baked potato?

Who is the lead?  The enigmatic question of our time.

What is apparent, though, is that while Patel is fine – he’s got an easy chemistry with Mara, and proves that the boy from Slumdog Millionaire truly has grown into a man – he has nothing on Sunny Pewar, who played half his role for him.  While Patel is good, Pewar is transcendent and, though that particular performance might very well have been manipulated from him by the director, or may have been the product of a child just being a child, and basically playing himself, you can’t ignore how wonderful it was.

Philosophically Speaking

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare to have a child go missing and not know what became of them.  Worse is for a child to be lost and have no way of reconnecting with that parent.  This movie truly tells those two sides – more or less – in a way that explores the various thoughts and feelings the situation would provoke.

But…

But I couldn’t help wondering if getting lost and adopted into another country was not a miracle for Saroo.  After all, if he’d stayed in India he’d likely have been stuck in poverty and had a very difficult life.  At least getting away from that gave him opportunity.  It’s a very weird thing to feel that what happened to him was terrible, but thank god it did.

A Note

Regular readers of this site – of which there are probably few – will note that I already had an Also-Rans entry for 2016, on Mel Gibson’s comeback film, Hacksaw Ridge.  Those same regular readers will also know I quite appreciated that film.  So why have I doubled up and thrown down another 2016 entry?

  • Because I could. There may be other reasons along with that for why I do things, but at heart the only reason humans do anything is because they could.
  • Because this blog is mine and since I make the rules on it I can change them at will and double up on a given year if I want.
  • Because I probably do have a regular reader or two who don’t mind more content from me, I’ll give it to them.
  • Because this is what I like to do.

I started this entry with a discussion on being authentic, and being true to yourself, and this is a fact – my true self loves several things: my wife, my kids, running, watching movies, talking about movies, and writing (sometimes about movies, sometimes about other things).  So, what do I do to enjoy my love for these things?  I hang out with my wife.  I talk to my kids.  I go running.  I watch movies, then I write about them.   I don’t do these things because I’m paid for them, I do them because I love them.

And if you think about it, not only am I not paid to watch or write about movies, I actually pay to do those things.  After all, I usually shell out money in some way for seeing these films – think about Netflix and Amazon Prime subscription fees – and those that I don’t shell out for and instead borrow from the library, still come attached with an opportunity cost.[4]

The point being is I don’t do this because I’m paid, or to follow silly rules – I do it because I love it.  So, if putting out a second post on the 2016 Also-Ran’s is how I want to show my love, then that’s what I’m doing.

You’re welcome.

Image result for moonlight posterBetter Than The Best?

Gimme a break – 2016 was the year of Moonlight, Oscar snafu notwithstanding, and there’s no film that could overcome that.  Not even Lion.

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Please Read/Buy…

See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.

Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project in book form:  E-Book or Paperback.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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[1] For spoon-feeding the audience, that is.

[2] If we’re honest, that’s the greatest praise you can give a movie – it makes the most of what it has to work with.

[3] I’m leaving it unsaid that the film tries to find/manufacture conflict in bits and pieces of the story of adopted-brother, Mantosh, who is clearly disturbed, and hope this manufactured conflict pushes things along.  Unfortunately, given that story is never resolved in any way, it’s obvious this is just a craven attempt at finding tension at all costs in a place where it did not exist.

[4] I learned about opportunity cost in college, particularly in relation to the concept of there being no free lunch.  How can there be no free lunch?  Because even when somebody gives it to you for free you pay for it not only with your time, but also by giving up the opportunity to do other things during that same time frame.  The opportunity cost of watching these movies?  Watching other movies, for one.

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