The best thing about The Good Lie is that Reese Witherspoon is hardly in it. That’s not a criticism of her acting; she’s actually terrific here in a supporting role. Rather, her limited screen time is something to celebrate because it allows a remarkable cast to shine in their own incredible story. Mercifully unlike The Blind Side and so many other White Savior Movies, The Good Lie is a heartfelt, heartbreaking portrait of the refugee experience. Here in Minnesota, home to one of the largest and most diverse refugee populations in the country, The Good Lie offers critical insight into the limited understanding we have of the lives of thousands of refugees among us: taxi drivers, doormen, cleaning ladies, business owners, scientists, professors, doctors, school board and city council members.
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Karen Kehela Sherwood, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Molly Smith
Writers: Margaret Nagle
Cinematographer: Ronald Plante
Editor: Richard Comeau
Music: Martin Leon
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Corey Stoll, Kuoth Wiel, Femi Oguns, Sarah Baker, Lindsey Garrett
Premiere: September 7, 2014 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 3, 2014
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Canadian director Philippe Falardeau (whose Monsieur Lazhar received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012) beautifully brings to life Margaret Nagle’s screenplay, which was shopped around for more than a decade before finding a willing producer in Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment. Nagle’s respect for the film’s subjects shines through: she had a personal connection with some of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, the several thousand young men (and some women) who were resettled in the U.S. in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Many of the Lost Boys were orphaned during Sudan’s decades-long civil war, and those who weren’t conscripted as child soldiers walked hundreds of miles from Sudan to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya (imagine trekking on foot from Chicago to Manhattan). More than 100,000 refugees—mostly Sudanese and Somali—still live in Kenya’s massive Kakuma refugee camp, victims of ongoing violence and a new “civil war” between Sudan and South Sudan, which was established as an independent country in 2011. The stories of Lost Boys have been well documented in memoirs (Dave Eggers’ What is the What, among others) and documentaries (Lost Boys of Sudan and God Grew Tired of Us), but The Good Lie is the first feature narrative inspired by their experience.
It’s important to understand some of this basic background of the Lost Boys because Falardeau jumps right into the action. The first 30 minutes of The Good Lie are spent in gripping terror with a young group of Sudanese children whose village has been attacked, leaving them alone, afraid, confused, and starving. Although The Good Lie earned a PG-13 rating, it does not gloss over the horrors of the conflict. And while seeing the children suffer through death and disease is disturbing, it’s critical in order to appreciate the trauma that so many Lost Boys experienced—and that continues to affect them as they live and work around us every day. Some scenes at Kakuma were actually filmed on location, and a cameo by John Pendergast lends a bit of credibility to the production for viewers familiar with his work on African peace and human rights issues.
Thirteen years after their uprooted childhood, The Good Lie zeroes in on the experience of three Lost Boys who are resettled in Kansas City, and one of their sisters who is placed in Boston. Falardeau impressively balances a wide range of tones as the characters experiences joy and sorrow while reinventing themselves in the U.S.: working menial jobs, going to school, and humorously trying to understand American culture. Witherspoon, aided by the always reliable Corey Stoll (in yet another role too small for his talent), assists the three Sudanese men in finding employment, and finding their way more generally.
Some scenes appear patronizing (as the refugees see a telephone and running water for the first time), and to be sure there are moments of melodrama. No scene strikes a false note, though, thanks partly to Nagle’s well-researched script but mostly to the grounded performances by the four cast members, all of whom have direct ties to the Lost Boys’ experience, and two of whom were actually child soldiers. Among the four is Minneapolis’ own Kuoth Wiel, who was born in a refugee camp, resettled here in 1998, and responded to an open casting call while a student at Augsburg College. She makes her acting debut as Abital and shines as the lone female character. Remarkably, the child actors who play the foursome as kids are also all sons and daughters of Lost Boys, and here they relive the terror that their own parents experienced at their ages.
I have to give a special nod here to Emmanuel Jal, a Lost Boy turned hip-hop artist whose career I’ve followed for the better part of a decade. All of the cast members are magnetic on screen, but Jal is given the most room to roam as Paul, the jokester of the four refugees who ultimately has the hardest time integrating into his new American identity. Jal has performed on stages worldwide, and although his transition to the screen isn’t flawless, he has a knack for dry humor and also darker emotions that hint at acting potential in the future.
Witherspoon is obviously cast as a bridge character for the American audience, and dominates the marketing of the film. It may be cynical to suggest that her lily-white face is being used to attract moviegoers to a story about dark-skinned people, but frankly, The Good Lie is an important enough film that I would justify whatever marketing attracts the largest audience. (Incidentally, the film's title references a lesson a character learns about Tom Sawyer's benevolent dishonesty, but you can understand the awkwardness of placing The White Lie in big block letters next to Witherspoon’s face on the poster.) Importantly, screenwriter Nagle doesn’t present Witherspoon’s character as a saint, but as an imperfect but genuinely caring individual, like so many selfless refugee counselors who are maddened by the situation but earnestly try to make the best of it.
The Good Lie is a feel-good movie that admittedly tiptoes around many of the larger societal issues related to refugee resettlement, but Falardeau is not offering a treatise on America’s treatment of refugees. The story of the Lost Boys is certainly a much-needed education for our country, but The Good Lie is primarily a vehicle to demonstrate that whether we are refugees or not, our commonalities far outnumber our differences. Anyone can understand the gut-wrenching pain of being separated from friends and family, and the jubilation of reuniting with them after an extended absence. Coming at the end of a year that saw refugees from Syria and Central America arriving in our communities, The Good Lie is an important reminder of this universality of the human experience.