I never thought I’d be so happy to see so little of Reese Witherspoon in a Reese Witherspoon movie. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike the actress. It’s just that I’ve hit my limit on stories about black characters told through the lens of a white movie star. Fortunately, The Good Lie isn’t another Amistad or The Blind Side. It’s a heartbreaking (if at times overly heart-tugging) account of the thousands of Sudanese refugees whose lives were ripped apart by their country’s bloody civil war in the 1980s. There was no shortage of senseless human tragedies in the 20th century, but the atrocity that fell upon this one African nation was especially grotesque. Whole families were brutally slaughtered by rebels who not only decimated Sudan’s population but created an entire generation of ”Lost Boys” in the process. It’s a wicked chapter of history that’s never gotten the attention — or compassion — it deserves. Despite a few missteps, Philippe Falardeau’s The Good Lie does its best to remedy that. It’s a deeply touching story about survival, perseverance, and hope.
The film is essentially composed of two halves. The first — and by far the stronger — follows a handful of Sudanese children whose village is attacked when war breaks out between the northern and southern regions of the country. Their parents are gunned down and they are left orphaned and terrified, forced to flee on foot while bloodthirsty soldiers pursue them. In these early scenes, which mix the haunting, otherworldly beauty of sub-Saharan savannas with the harrowing circumstances of these kids’ fates, the film bears witness to unimaginable horrors and small moments of resilient grace. After walking 800 miles and losing several companions along the way, the remaining four children eventually reach the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. They spend the next 13 years in limbo there, awaiting news on whether any country cares enough to offer sanctuary. The United States finally grants them asylum.
The second half of The Good Lie chronicles how these now-grown Lost Boys (Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, and Emmanuel Jal) and one Lost Girl (Kuoth Wiel) adapt to their new home. The men rebuild their lives in Kansas City, Mo., while the woman is sent to live with a family in Boston. Their separation at the airport, after all they’ve endured, feels almost as cruel as everything that came before. In Kansas City, a brunet and relatively subdued Witherspoon arrives on the scene as the employment counselor who reluctantly takes on the responsibility of finding the men jobs, showing them how to use a telephone, and explaining why she isn’t married. Some of these stranger-in-a-strange-land culture-clash moments are handled with a lighter touch than others. (The film’s title comes from a discussion of Huckleberry Finn in a night-school class.)
Falardeau, the French-Canadian director of the 2011 Oscar-nominated import Monsieur Lazhar, and writer Margaret Nagle (Boardwalk Empire) tell the refugees’ story with sensitivity, wisely downplaying the Great White Savior aspects of Witherspoon’s character. And you get the sense that the actress is fine with not being the center of attention. She’s smart enough to know that peddling that sort of feel-good schmaltz can sabotage a noble-minded picture. She also must know that asking folks to pay for a babysitter and sit through an evening of genocide is a tall order. That might explain why she allowed the studio to pump up the size of her face and name on the movie’s poster relative to the modest size of her role. Is it misleading? Sure. But it’s what you might call a good lie. B