The Good Lie
2014, PG-13, 110 min. Directed by Philippe Falardeau. Starring Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Reese Witherspoon, Corey Stoll, Sarah Baker, Kuoth Wiel, Femi Oguns, Peterdeng Mongok, Okwar Jale, Keji Jale.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Oct. 3, 2014
Is it cynical or simply cunning of marketers to plaster Reese Witherspoon’s pretty mug all over the promotional materials? In actuality, she doesn’t show up onscreen until 40 minutes in, and she’s only ever a supporting player. But if it gets bodies in seats, what’s a little bait and switch? General audiences are far more likely to line up Friday night for a Reese Witherspoon picture (from the executive producers of The Blind Side, no less) than they are a heartfelt drama about a group of Sudanese orphans struggling to survive.
The Good Lie begins in the early Eighties in South Sudan (the film was shot in South Africa and Kenya), when a village is bombed and the surviving children flee on foot, only to discover they’re pinned in on all sides by war. Eventually, the group walks 785 miles to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where they join thousands of others now known as the lost boys and girls of Sudan. Canadian director Philippe Falardeau (Oscar nominee for Monsieur Lazhar) films these early, subtitled scenes mostly with a documentarian’s observational remove and slightly shaky camera – an effective way to dramatize the horror of war without exploiting it, tarting it up with Hollywood techniques.
The group – which thins over the journey and subsequent years – eventually lands in America on the eve of 9/11: Mamere (Oceng), the de facto chief, who dreams of becoming a doctor; Jeremiah (Duany), a gentle giant who does missionary work; spry Paul (Jal), whose spirit withers in America; and Mamere’s sister, Abital (Wiel), who is sent to live in Boston, far from the young men’s new home in Kansas City, Mo. In Missouri, the young men meet Witherspoon’s Carrie, an employment officer who begrudgingly takes on their case and, eventually, their cause – to reunite with Abital.
Screenwriter Margaret Nagle can’t resist the occasional fish-out-of-water joke, but she does pen Paul a withering monologue that stops two gawking co-workers cold. (Subtextually, it’s the film’s own raised eyebrow at audiences that maybe laughed a little too hard when the Sudanese émigrés wonder at their first Happy Meal.) If The Good Lie becomes more generic in America with the addition of bona fide movie stars and slicker dialogue and plotting, the finely calibrated performances of the three leading men pull the film through to its moving conclusion.