Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write Fiction about Family

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction! Each Monday I will look at a film currently in theatrical release.

Review — Lion (2016)

There are some stories that, as long as the writer and director don’t massively screw up somewhere along the way, are almost impervious to failure, that are so inherently compelling from beginning to end and leave the audience in excruciating suspense as to the outcome. The film Lion, directed by Garth Edwards and based on a true story, is one of those films, the kind that show families torn apart in the beginning, only for them to be reunited at the end.

Sometimes it’s brothers and sisters. Or sisters and sisters. Or parents and children. The one that always comes to mind is Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, which may not necessarily be the go-to title for Spielberg fans in his massive impressive canon, but it remains one of my absolute favorites mostly for that heart-wrenching story of two sisters pulled apart who finally come together in the last scene, one of the great uplifting movie endings. This conflict marks the foundation of The Impossible, and Kill Bill, and countless other fantastic films.

Director Edwards has made another terrific film on this topic, one that’s handled differently from other films of the like, both for the good and for the bad. First the good. I was fascinated by how Edwards opens the film, not telling this story from the older Saroo (who’s played in his adult years by Dev Patel) looking back at how he came to be the man he is today, but instead giving the first thirty-plus minutes completely over to the young Saroo (a natural and charismatic young actor, Sunny Pawar) as he navigates a scary world after being separated from his brother and family and finds himself waking up on a Train hundreds of miles away from home.

Many filmmakers would have chosen to show the older Saroo reflecting on his young life, but Davis made a smart choice in letting these events play out in a more straightforward narrative fashion, letting it sink in for the audience just what Saroo has lost as he tries to come to terms with his new adoptive parents John (David Wenham) and Sue (an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman). The film allows us to sympathize with his plight without allowing typical story structure rear its ugly head and pull us away from the emotion of the story.

The chunk of the film that doesn’t work as well as this beginning is some of the material involving the older Saroo (Patel) as he sets out to find his family and yet still keep a close connection to his adoptive parents, as well as find time for a romance with a girl named Lucy (Rooney Mara, doing her best with a pretty thankless role). I greatly enjoyed what this film had to say about adoption, a topic I don’t see explored in too many films (The Blind Side comes to mind, but few others). There’s a great scene where Kidman cries in front of her grown adoptive son where she expresses her feelings she shares for him, that he is and forever will be her boy no matter what. Unfortunately the scenes with Mara pull the film down, especially since the story doesn’t seem to know what to really do with her character, although Mara is solid as always, and Patel delivers probably his best performance since his breakthrough in Slumdog Millionaire.

But despite the film’s occasional flaws, director Davis sticks the landing with an emotionally searing finale that — spoiler, I guess — delivers just what you’re looking for. Sure it’s expected, but the film, based on Saroo’s book A Long Way Home, wouldn’t stay true to its source by giving the audience any other ending. It’s a narrative structure that simply works, and works well, and will always work well as long as stories continue to be told. Featuring great performances, a fantastic ending, and an especially harrowing first act with the young Saroo, Lion is an impressive feel-good debut feature.

Watching Like a Writer

Watching Lion made me want to think of a novel idea about a family torn apart who get reunited at the end, but do it in a way that’s original and different, some kind of a spin put on the familiar narrative we’ve all seen before. I don’t know exactly what I’d do with that, but it’s fun to think about what kind of unique take I could come up with.

Exercise!

Think of a log-line for a story about a family who are separated and are then brought back together at the narrative’s conclusion. What would be your take on this familiar story?

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