Published Oct 03, 2014The schmaltzy marketing campaign around Philippe Falardeau's film The Good Lie would lead anyone to believe that Reese Witherspoon is the star of this story about four survivors of Sudan's civil war. And considering the film comes from the executive producers of the Sandra Bullock-fronted The Blind Side, it's not unreasonable to expect another insufferable "white saviour" drama.
But you should know that this Tinseltown calling card for Falardeau — the Canadian director behind 2012's Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar — is not the film it's packaged to be (although if Witherspoon's star appeal and scrappy Erin Brockovich-type "who do I have to screw around here" lines in the trailer get people into theatres, well, fine). The rightful stars of The Good Lie are the young actors whose characters endure the unimaginable horrors that they once faced in real life in Sudan.
What differentiates the film from other Hollywood offerings detailing the journeys of North America-bound immigrants and refugees is the careful attention paid to the lives of its four protagonists in Sudan before and during the war. Falardeau gives us a thorough understanding of where his characters come from, rather than immediately plonking them in a foreign land and forcing one-dimensional stereotypes. Instead, we meet Mamere (Arnold Oceng), his sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel) and their friends Paul (Emmanuel Jal) and Jeremiah (Ger Duany) — all actors who lived through the civil war, some as child soldiers — leading rich lives with their families in southern Sudan, and becoming orphans in the course of an afternoon in 1983 when the war between the north and south over autonomy reaches their village.
After fleeing their homes, the group looks after each other and is forced into decisions no child should ever make. For example, when soldiers stumble upon the children sleeping in a field, Theo — barely a teenager — sacrifices his freedom so the others may escape. This automatically renders Mamere as the new chief, in charge of leading the orphans to a Kenyan refugee camp.
Over a decade later, the group — now grown and in their early 20s — still lives in the camp, but is soon given a chance to move to the U.S. through a humanitarian effort that would ultimately resettle 3,600 Sudanese refugees across the country. Enter Witherspoon as tough-as-nails Kansas native Carrie Davis, an employment counsellor who takes all their cases except for Abital's, whom the government separates from the boys and relocates to another state.
Carrie's initial interactions with her Sudanese charges — uncertainty over the purpose of a telephone, unfettered joy over a first Coca-Cola, etc. — provide some comedic fodder, but eventually grow stale. Not only are such bits redundant, but it's also uncomfortable to keep laughing at what are undeniable realities for many newcomers. But as Mamere, Paul and Jeremiah settle into their new lives, The Good Lie matures into something more meaningful as it follows a group of lost boys becoming lost men in a strange and unforgiving culture. Though Carrie's hard-headed efforts to reunite the group with Abital have their cringe-inducing, Blind Side-recalling moments, strong performances across the board imbue an authenticity to these relationships that gives the film its footing. In Falardeau's hands, The Good Lie gives its famous lead a meaty role that never undermines the affecting stories of its four protagonists.