It's genuinely shocking to me that Lion is as good as it is, for as long as it is. It's Harvey Weinstein's duly-anointed champion for the Oscar season, which has only rarely been a good sign in the 21st Century and is frequently the biggest red flag I can think of. And that becomes an even more dire sign in light of the kind of Oscarbait this is: the Inspiring True Story of a person for whom things ended up well, after a long enough stretch of suffering. All the stars were aligned for this to be insufferable in every way, and instead it is merely insufferable sometimes, and in only a few ways. Not half-bad for a movie whose main intellectual takeaway seems to be that the cure to Indian poverty is to be adopted by rich Westerners.

The inspiring story this time around was that of Saroo Brierley, five years old in 1986, when he lived in the city of Khandwa, in central India. An accident separated him from his elder brother one night, and he ended up traveling in an empty train all the way to Kolkata, all the way on the far side of the country. After several weeks flitting around the city homeless, Saroo was taken in by a government agency that failed entirely to decode his childish understanding of where his hometown was located and what it was named, and so he was officially put up for adoption. This is how he was taken in by the Brierlys of Hobart, Tasmania, who raised him to adulthood. Come 2008, using Google Earth, he devoted a huge amount of time to exhuming his vague childhood memories to begin a hunt to find his home and family. Since they made a movie out of Brierley's memoir, A Long Way Home, I suppose you can guess whether he was successful or not.

So anyway, Lion is essentially a two-part story of Brierley's life, first depicting the two-year span that took the boy Saroo (Sunny Pawar) from his biological mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) and brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) into the welcoming arms of John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman, sporting the worst wig of 2016), with a long stopover lost on the streets of Kolkata that finds the adorable innocent forced to learn how to survive. Then, after a twenty-year time jump, grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) starts to clench with doubt about himself and his place in the world, alienating his parents, his unstable adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), and his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), as he wrestles with the question of whether he truly wants to crack open his past and go inside.

Did you see it? I'll say it again in case you didn't see it, but I'll rephrase it this time: in the first half of Lion, stuff happens. In the second half of Lion, stuff doesn't happen. That's snide and awful of me I'm sure, but the point remains that, a quarter of a century or more into the PC age, filmmakers still haven't figured out how to make "sitting at a computer, looking up information" visually or dramatically interesting in the slightest degree, and that's pretty much what we've got for half of the movie or more. And it really just cannot help but be inert, no matter how much screenwriter Luke Davies attempts to dress up the fringes with touches domestic drama - will Saroo push Lucy away? will he upset his saintly adopted mother? will Mantosh keep spinning down in a self-destructive cycle (this last one is borderline-fatal to the movie: real life doesn't conform to the rules of dramatic narrative, but dramatic narrative had ought to, and the filmmakers haven't found anything resembling a satisfactory way to work the brother's storyline into the rest of the movie)?

Honestly, it's not the easiest thing in the world to care, though once the movie actually gets back to the matter of doing stuff, and sending Saroo back to India, it mostly works as a good old-fashioned tearjerker. And the pleasure of a movie that ends on just about its single strongest note is not to be denied. Still, there's a lot of second half to get through, and while Patel has a great face for the camera and emotes richly in the fashion of a '40s melodrama star, there's just not much that's organically dynamic, as opposed to forcibly over-dramatised Nor does the cast outside of Patel doesn't give much flavor to their parts (Mara has never been blander, and Kidman can't sell her character's bizarre, quasi-neo-colonialist motivation for scooping up Indian kids and raising them as Aussies, laid out in a boisterously terrible scene). So it just feels padded, an attempt to run the clock while Saroo decides whether or not to keep looking at his computer screen and scrolling the map, an action that director Garth Davis is powerless to render interesting.

That's the second half, anyway. The first half, however, that's just absolutely great, and I mean that quite sincerely. The whole first chunk of the movie has to rest securely on the shoulders of Pawar, and he repays it ten times over: this is right on par with Beasts of the Southern Wild in recent cinema for providing a performance from a very small child that feels entirely convincing, giving us an emotionally accessible entrance into a film that never breaks the child's-eye viewpoint. Obviously Davis and cinematographer Greig Fraser didn't invent the rulebook for lowering the camera down to give us the young protagonist's POV and dignify his presence onscreen, but they sure as hell do a fantastic job of it. And Fraser's work is exemplary besides: threading the fine needle of making the Indian countryside sufficiently beautiful that we feel Saroo's sense of wide-eyed amazement, while not cheapening the roughness of the Kolkata streets, while also not indulging in overly-gritty poverty porn (Fraser is also just about the only person whose work in the second of the film is above reproach; him, and the composers Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran, whose score is astonishingly non-sentimental and has a slightly Indian-ish tone that avoids musical Orienatlism).

It is, to be clear, another on the not-short list of "woeful child in poverty" movies, and the beats aren't anything new; the value is in the execution, and that's great. Davis leaves all of the cloying crowd-pleasing sentiment to the back half, with the first half as hard and flat a depiction of childhood suffering as any I've seen. It's a damned pity that the film implodes so thoroughly, because there's something awfully good to start with - not groundbreaking, not year's-best, but awfully good, and for a movie that appears to have been created in Weinstein's lab, awfully good is quite an achievement.