Review – The Good Lie (2014)
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Starring: Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Reese Witherspoon, Kuoth Wiel, Corey Stoll, Femi Oguns
The title of The Good Lie refers to a lesson learned by Huckleberry Finn, that a lie told for noble purposes can be excused, that the rightness of the outcome can pardon the wrongness of the action. For example, say a film studio were to put Reese Witherspoon front and centre in all of the marketing material for a film despite the fact she only plays a supporting character who does not even appear until half an hour in, all as a means of tricking audiences into seeing an important story about the experiences of Sudanese refugees, that might be considered a “good lie.”
‘The Lost Boys of Sudan’ was a title given to the approximately 20,000 Sudanese children who were displaced during the second Sudanese Civil War. The Good Lie tells the story of four such children, Mamere and his sister Abital, and brothers Jeremiah and Paul. When their village is attacked and their parents slaughtered, the children are forced to flee by foot. They walk first to the Ethiopian border, and when no help is to be found there, to the Kenyan border. After 785 miles of walking they arrive at Kakuma Refugee Camp, where they will stay for 13 years before receiving the news that they are to be relocated to America. On arrival though, they discover that the three men are to be settled in Kansas City while Abital is to be sent to Boston. According to program rules, while men can be settled together, females must be placed with families. As the three men struggle to fit in and endeavour, with the help of an employment agency counsellor, to make a life for themselves in Missouri, they also work to reunite their family.
The demands of movie marketing means that Reese Witherspoon has to top billed and feature strongly in advertising campaigns. In all likelihood the film only got financing as a result of her agreeing to star in it. But this isn’t her film. While the trailers for The Good Lie would suggest that it is going to be The Blind Side without the football, the great strength of the film is that it is actually allowed to be their story rather than hers. Rather than another white-person-rescuing-black-people narrative, the young Sudanese characters are actually allowed to be the heroes of their own story.
The central quartet of African characters are all played by actors who are either Sudanese refugees themselves, or the children of refugees. Two of the performers were even former child soldiers. While their acting can be a bit stilted at times, especially in moments of high emotion, knowing their real-life backgrounds adds to the sincerity of the story.
But as much as The Good Lie is refreshingly different in its willingness to put the African characters front and centre in its narrative, there are moments in the film that are frustratingly familiar. Screenwriter Margaret Nagle drew upon real stories and experiences in creating her fictional character, which makes it disappointing when things feel a bit inauthentic and it feels like we have seen certain scenes before. There is some gentle culture clash humour that is drawn from watching these characters acclimatising to life in America. While some of this humour is subtle – a sweet moment when Jeremiah offers half of his orange to a woman sitting next to him on the bus – at other times it can feel like cheap laughs – they don’t know how to use a telephone! Ha, ha!
Despite this, the movie’s heart is clearly in the right place. The Good Lie is obviously a real passion project for its writer and director. Nagle fought for the best part of a decade to bring this important story to the screen, while French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau was drawn to the project (his first English-language feature) after he was forced, years earlier, to abandon a documentary he was shooting in the Sudan about the plight of these refugees.
While the execution is imperfect, the story is still incredibly affecting and empathetic, leading you to forgive other elements of the film. Ultimately The Good Lie is more than just a movie, with the producers launching ‘The Good Lie Fund’ (www.goodliefund.org), hoping to use the profile of the film to raise funds for educational and humanitarian programs for Lost Boys and Girls communities.
Review by Duncan McLean
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