October 03, 2014

The Good Lie

The Blind Glide

Grade: B
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Corey Stoll, and Kuoth Wiel
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr. 50 min.

A film of limitless sincerity and sentimentality, The Good Lie manages to be both workmanlike and earnest in its portrayal of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” the gender-specific moniker given to the tens of thousands of children displaced and/or orphaned during the Sudanese Civil War that began in 1983.

The Good Lie is only the latest in a series of films over the last decade centered on the Lost Boys’ plight, chief among them God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan, the 2006 Sundance-winning documentary. The Good Lie’s ad poster prominently spotlights the image of top-billed star Reese Witherspoon in a manner that viewers might mistake her role as an Out of Africa or The Blind Side retread. However, Canadian director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and writer Margaret Nagle get one thing right by focusing their story on a quartet of lost children and their arduous odyssey from a brutal homeland to a strange, detached new life in America.

The film begins with a start, the massacre of a thousand-years-old village in Sudan that leaves the adults slain and a handful of their children orphaned. During the ensuing years spent aimlessly wandering through the desert, their numbers are further whittled down by marauding militias, starvation, thirst and carnivores.

Mamere, now the de facto tribal chief, along with Jeremiah, Paul and Abital reach a refugee camp on the Ethiopian border, where they live for another 13 years until a literal luck of the draw earns them placement with American foster homes by a religious organization. Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany) and Paul (Emmanuel Jal) are sent to live in Kansas City, while their “sister” Abital (Kuoth Wiel) is required to reside in Boston.

Their separation forms the majority of the tension during the film’s second half, which shifts exclusively to Mamere, Jeremiah and Paul’s fish-out-of-water life in Kansas City. They stare mouth agape at skyscrapers, telephones and Jello molds. They cannot comprehend the notion of an unmarried adult woman or discarding food as garbage.

In the spirit of true capitalism, the boys’ residence in the country is contingent on obtaining employment within six months (they have to pay for their plane tickets over, as well). So, enter job-placement coordinator Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), a sassy, single slob with men on the side and a heart of gold. Carrie’s boss, cattle farmer Jack (Carey Stoll), warns her not to get personally involved with the immigrants’ lives. So, of course that’s exactly what she ends up doing.

As affecting as the film’s first half feels, its second stanza is perfunctory and even anticlimactic. Mamere wants to become a doctor, so even as he struggles with everyday life in America, he’s suddenly seen studying medical textbooks. Jeremiah quits his grocery clerk job after his boss objects to giving old food away to poor people, so naturally he becomes a lay minister at the local church. Paul is a whiz at the faucet assembly plant, but his productivity and emotional stability suffers due to the absence of Abital and the introduction of Mary Jane (not a person).

The film’s title refers to the fibs we tell for the sake of greater good. However, it’s doubtful that The Good Lie conveys all the truths of this story. The motives of the faith-based organizations ferrying children from war torn Sudan are cast as nothing but altruistic, while any racism that the Lost Boys regularly encountered upon reaching the United States is white-washed away.

However, the film sustains thanks to its earnest core and cast—Duany (who you might recall from his bit role in I Heart Huckabees), Jal and Wiehl are actual lost child survivors of the Sudan civil war. The Good Lie isn’t a definitive account of the Lost Boys of Sudan and the immigration by some to America, but it’s a suitably affecting primer.

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