Mark Reviews Movies

The Good Lie


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Philippe Falardeau

Cast: Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Reese Witherspoon, Corey Stoll, Kuoth Wiel, Sarah Baker, Femi Oguns

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some violence, brief strong language and drug use)

Running Time: 1:50

Release Date: 10/3/14 (limited); 10/17/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 16, 2014

The Good Lie is proof that, when it wants to, Hollywood can tell a story from the correct perspective. This one concerns a group of refugees from Sudan. They survive a civil war in their country, travel by foot for hundreds of miles to reach a refugee camp, spend almost two decades in the camp, and benefit from a program that allows them to resettle in the United States. The movie "stars" Reese Witherspoon as someone at an employment agency. "Stars" means that the actress receives top billing in the film, although she's actually a supporting character in a film that is smart enough to know that the real story here isn't about the random woman who comes into these refugees' lives.

There have been too many well-intentioned movies that either do not realize or only pay lip service to this rudimentary fact. The stories of the people helped by the characters played by the "stars" become secondary.

The real stars of The Good Lie are the four Sudanese actors who play the refugees—a few of the Lost Boys (and Girls) of Sudan, as the tens of thousands of displaced children have come to be known. During the closing credits, the film shows each of these actors holding a photograph of himself or herself as a child. The accompanying text below each name tells us a story in succinct terms: "son of a Sudanese refugee," "refugee," and "former child soldier."

It's no wonder, then, that their performances are so effective and, ultimately, affecting. These are performances that blur the line between acting and being. In one scene, one of the men tells his curious co-workers how he received a noticeable scar in his forearm. He was trying to save his younger brother from a lion. Whether the story itself is taken directly from the actor's experience or not, there's no mistaking that the scar is real. There's a story behind it, and whatever experiences these actors lived that have resulted in obvious physical and hidden emotional scars are there in these performances.

The film opens with an extended, horrifying travelogue that follows a group of children who have escaped a massacre of their village in Sudan by militants. Their families are dead. The soldiers are still looking for people to kill or children to capture for use as fighters. So the children walk. For hundreds of miles, they walk, first toward Ethiopia in the east and then, after learning from another group of migrants that the soldiers are also there, toward Kenya in the south.

A few of the children die of dehydration and starvation, and many more are killed in a chilling scene that watches several of them try to cross a river downstream from a mass slaughter. Bodies float by them as they cross and as the soldiers pursue those who tried to escape. Their leader, the eldest boy of the village, later takes the place of his younger brother when soldiers discover him.

Eventually, they arrive at a refugee camp. Years and years pass, and Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), and Paul (Emmanuel Jal), along with their sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel), receive news that they will be going to Kansas City, Missouri (Not all of them are family by blood, but they are family). In New York at the airport, they learn that Abital must have her own sponsor family and the only one that will take her is in Boston. The family that survived so much is separated.

Witherspoon plays Carrie, who helps the Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul find jobs, and Corey Stoll plays her boss Jack, who teaches the men that an insincere smile is what an American employer expects. These characters come and go as the men's lives become routine, and it's finding that routine—a newfound sense of normalcy—upon which Margaret Nagle's screenplay focuses.

The men work. Jeremiah, a devoutly religious man who starts teaching Sunday school at a local church, struggles with what he sees as the sin of throwing out "bad" food when there are people who need it. Paul is a natural on a manufacturing assembly line and begins smoking pot as a way to keep the pain of his past at bay. Mamere wants to become a doctor, so he balances schoolwork and a second job. Always on their minds is Abital.

There's the sense of the immigrant experience here in these are ordinary conflicts and trials. If those difficulties are explored with minimal depth, it hardly matters because they are honest. Of increasing concern to the story and the characters is a feeling of survivor's guilt. For all of them, it's in losing Abital to a bureaucratic mandate. For Paul, it's in being unable to save his brother from that lion. For Mamere, it's in the knowledge that his older brother, the child who gave himself up to the soldiers in the prologue, sacrificed himself for the other refugees because of Mamere's mistake.

That becomes a major part of the film's final act, which follows Mamere back to Kenya and across Africa to twist immigration rules, and what's vital to the film's success is that everything that happens is founded on the desires and needs of the refugees. Carrie and Jack arrive to aid in traversing the murky governmental landscape, but never do Nagle and director Philippe Falardeau misinterpret whose story this is. Even a late-night monologue by Jack, comparing his experiences in the Army with Mamere's guilt, is only present to contextualize the film's climactic decision.

That decision, like all of the other important ones in the film, belongs to one of the refugees. It's an emotional wallop that is simultaneously devastating and inspiring, and that's only possible because The Good Lie invests its time and sympathy in the people who really matter here.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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