Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, February 6, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Lion (2016)

What the fuck is “Lion” about? That was the question that even die hard film fans were asking themselves during the Oscar nominations announcement. As the ceremony creeps closer, people continue to be baffled by the film's success. Memes have emerged, boiling the film down to “Slumdog Got Hot.” In fact, Dev Patel's supposed attractiveness seems to be the most interesting thing about the film for many. After reading up on it, I figured out why this movie nobody had heard of got nominated for a couple Oscars. “Lion” is from the Weinstein Brothers, those crafty producers especially good at running awards campaign. Ah, that explains a lot!

So, to ask again, what the fuck exactly is “Lion” about? Well, apparently it's based on an inspiring true story or something! Saroo grew up in an impoverish Indian village. While his mother worked during the day, moving rocks, Saroo and his brother went out to steal from passing trains. When he was five, Saroo's brother never returned. The boy rode a train to a strange village where nobody spoke his language. Eventually, after living both on the streets and in a orphanage, he was adopted by an Australian couple. Saroo grows up hundreds of miles away. After hearing about Google Earth, he grows obsessed with finding his birth mother.

The first act of “Lion” tricks you into thinking this movie will be more interesting then it actually ends up being. The scenes of the young Saroo in India, surviving in a hellish village are compelling. The opening moment – when he helps his brother steal coal from a moving train, which they then sell so they can have money to eat – is interesting. Once Saroo is left on the train, “Lion” even takes a gritty turn. One moment specially sticks out. The boy is taken in by an apparently kind woman, who then introduces him to a creepy man with ambiguous motivations. There is a certain earthy element to these moments that make them interesting.

Once Saroo is adopted and moves to Australia, it becomes a lot less compelling. As little Sunny Pawar is traded out for Dev Patel, “Lion” falls into a pretty boring rut. An interesting story about a kid growing up in a rough part of the world then becomes a story about a kid growing up in a well to do family. Saroo's sudden obsession with finding his birth mother doesn't receive much foreshadowing. The way this quest consumes his entire life is overblown. He slips into a weird depression, lounging on his girlfriend's couch, searching Google Earth for hours. I'm sure the real Saroo Brierley spend a lot of time doing these things but I doubt it derailed his life to such a severe degree. “Lion” also struggles with how to make people starring at a computer look cinematic. It's solution – close-ups on Google apps – isn't very effective.

Honestly, for most of “Lion,” I was way more interested in Saroo's brother then him. You see, the Brierleys adopt another Indian boy, named Mantosh. From an early scene, where he freaks out while starring at a blank television, it's clear Mantosh is mentally ill. Whatever his affliction is, it causes him to have episodes of self-abuse. The character is obviously sick yet “Lion” still treats him like a bad guy, burdening his parents. Saroo treats his brother like a jerk. He gets over it but I was still kind of annoyed with how “Lion” approaches his brother's mental illness as just another stepping stone on Saroo's quest towards finding his mom. That Divian Ladwa plays the character as a spaced out bum doesn't help either.

For some reason, Dev Patel got nominated for Best Supporting Actor even though he's obviously the lead. Patel is a solid performer and does good work in “Lion.” The script isn't strong enough to make Brierley's funk look anything but petty and self-indulgent but Patel does bring a few interesting touches to the part. I'm taking about a conflicted facial expression, an uncertain smile. Rooney Mara, a fairly big name, somehow got casts as Saroo's girlfriend, a thinly sketched part. Nicole Kidman also received a nomination. You can tell what her big Oscar moment is, when Saroo's mom delivers a monologue about why they chose to adopt.

2017 presents us with one of the best set of nominees we've had in years... Except for “Lion,” which is exactly the type of middlebrow awards bait the Academy usually goes for. It's a sappy, “based on a true story” film that invokes big social issues without actually making a point about them. (It also, one can't help but notice, features white people helping minorities and has a prominent role for a major corporation.) There's even a flashy pop song playing over the end credits that thankfully did not receive a Best Song nomination. The cast is alright and the film starts off strong enough. Sadly, as a whole, it's pretty lackluster. But at least I know what this “Lion” thing actually is now. [6/10]

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