Lion, the word of mouth movie of TIFF, & a "love letter" to Nicole Kidman's children
Word at TIFF travels fast. Sometimes, a little too fast. And Lion surprised everybody when it premiered on Saturday to "ugly cries" and a standing ovation. It's the based-on-a-true-story Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara adoption movie that is seemingly sponsored by Google Earth, and which many are calling the runaway surprise of the festival.
Why? Well, because Harvey Weinstein bigged it up earlier this year as a film that would win "eight or nine" Oscars. This would be the film to save his studio — which is reportedly hemorrhaging staff, funds, access and acclaim — and he's been known to hype up projects with hot air in the past, so how can you take his word for it?
Harvey Weinstein has more lives than all of Doris Day's cats combined. https://t.co/TtEA7bqLOx— Scott Feinberg (@ScottFeinberg) September 11, 2016
Maybe we should have listened with less of a sarcastic ear, because Lion is VERY effective. Lion is the story of Saroo (played by Dev Patel in his later years) who struggles to find and forge his own identity. His adoptive mother (Nicole Kidman) loves him and cares for him, but he feels guilt about how he came into her life. When Saroo was five, he accidently got trapped on a train heading to Calcutta while playing with his brother on a local nearby train track. After living on the streets and some terrifying run-ins with kidnappers, he gets arrested for theft and ends up in Nicole's character's arms shortly after being placed in an adoption agency. He holds onto remorse that he was never able to tell his mother he's "okay" or his brother to stop looking for him. He loves his adoptive family but cannot find closure about his old life until he finds answers about his past and tracks down his birth mom.
The film is devastatingly emotional, but not cheesy. While the conversations in the film, especially between Rooney Mara (Saroo's girlfriend) and Saroo appear to be too sparse or too swift to keep the plot moving quickly, they still work. And watching Rooney flirt with him throughout their meet-cute? It's a dream. Lion puts you in an emotional haze, actually. And it asks the question, too, about whether we know too much about celebrities.
Nicole is so, so, so good in this role, as an adoptive parent who insists that while she could have had children of her own with her husband, she always wanted Saroo and his brother (also adopted, not related by blood to Saroo). After this scene, where she talks about choice and choosing to adopt, it's hard not to relate it to her personal life, and her kids from her marriage with Tom Cruise, Bella and Connor. In the public's mind, we've heard about their estrangement, yet while doing press for the film with etalk, Nicole said not only that she was the mother of "four children," but that she was an adoptive parent of two and tells our colleague Liz Trinnear all about the joy, pain and stress of adoption. She called it a "love letter" to her adoptive children.
Nicole is leaning into her personal life with this role.
It's so hard not to read into it on-screen too, and the way this scene is placed in the film, and the way it is shot so intimately with Dev and Nicole made every single person in my row at the press and industry screening wail. From that point on, I cried so much in this movie, that I had mascara marks on my arm.
And it almost did not happen. Well, I almost did not see the movie on a Sunday at 9:15 a.m. I rushed to see it earlier than Lainey and I had originally scheduled because of how Liz — a self-professed music person and less of a film person — raved about the movie. I had never, ever, heard her talk about any movie like that in over a year of working together, and with such passionate language and "oh my gods." It was so engrossing, I had to see it barely 12 hours later. And she was right. Lion is not without its flaws of course, it reminds me a lot of Tom Hooper's debut, which also caught onto rapidfire word of mouth success at TIFF, and which was ALSO a Weinstein movie.
Is it manipulative? Sure. Also, is the product placement of "Google Earth" too much to handle? This is one of the tools Saroo uses to find his mom and it does not bother me. Like I said to Lainey yesterday, it reminds me of how Fed Ex is used as a catalyst in Cast Away (with very different results). It's a brand, sure, but it feels more like a "brand partnership" than a marketing campaign. Besides, if independent-ish films cannot take advantage of this product placement, why can Marvel movies? And, also, it's true to life. This is how he reconnected with his (illiterate) mother in India. So why not honour the true story without looking "hokey" and while retaining that authenticity?
Branding aside, the movie is engrossing, and very quickly-paced. Some scenes seem deliberately sped up to keep the run time under two hours for mass market appeal, but it still works.
As for those "eight or nine" Oscars? Well, Nicole was stronger in Rabbit Hole, but this role was truly something she felt strongly about and could relate to deeply. You could tell. And she's already taking about these personal ties in her interviews. Dev is wonderful, too, and so rugged. This is not the Slumdog Millionaire kid. He’s a man now, and eight years after Slumdog became the runaway success of TIFF, he's back again with another multi-generational portrayal and word of mouth hit.
Will it catch on outside the festival bubble? That remains to be seen. Rooney, Nicole and Dev together may sound like a bland mix, but the word of mouth about how this movie can make you feel shows that it has some raw power, but likely not "eight or nine" Oscars power. There was a lineup outside a theatre to see this movie at 9:15am on a Sunday. For a press screening... which I've never seen before. That's some undeniable buzz.
Kevin Winter/ Walter McBride/ C Flanigan/ GP Images/ George Pimentel/ Getty Images