Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany
Directed by: Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”)
Written by: Margaret Nagle (debut)
As a tale of the events of the Second Sudanese War, “The Good Lie” is a narrative inspired by the true events of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Sudanese children who were displaced and forced from their homes during the Second Sudanese war. It’s a great opportunity to tell the harrowing story of an often-brutal journey, one that is seized and promptly released in favor of light family fare.
After traveling a thousand miles by foot, a group of Sudanese children escaping war find themselves at a refugee camp in Kenya. After spending more than a decade there, they are chosen via lottery to be sent off to live in the U.S. Separated from their group, the refugees must navigate American life while fighting to become reunited with a family member.
The film starts with a group of kids looking for shelter in Kenya after their Sudanese village is attacked and their families are killed. The conditions are harsh, with the children having to bear extreme heat, little to no food or water, and having to walk thousands of miles through dangerous occupied territories to stay safe. It is an incredibly effective portrayal of the conditions The Lost Boys had to face and among the best scenes in the film.
As the film moves into the adult versions of our surviving group, the film begins to table the more severe stories of hardship and turns to more typical story beats of assimilation. It is in these sections that “The Good Lie” begins to feel awfully familiar. It’s the same culture shock material that is familiar to anyone who has seen a film with people new to America: They marvel at McDonald’s and pizza. They are baffled by a telephone. They are unaware of basic social norms. It’s really hard to be amused by the same comedic ideas that have been around for years.
From a narrative and character perspective, “The Good Lie” opens a lot of storytelling threads, but fails to follow through with them. Motivations for coming to America are pushed to the side and potentially harmful lifestyle choices meet in a mild confrontation and are never spoken of again due to a screenplay that feels frequently underdeveloped.
Another major issue is that there are virtually no character arcs to speak of. Solid performances from actors who are real Sudanese refugees are often wasted by the stagnant nature of their character traits. Perhaps the biggest flaw of “The Good Lie” is Reese Witherspoon’s ill-fitting character Carrie, an employee agency counselor who attempts to assist the men in building a foundation for a new life in America. The character is extremely plain and makes no use of the Oscar winner’s talents and an actress. In fact, you could plug almost any other actress in the role and it would come out the same. Similar to the Sudanese characters, Carrie lacks any arc that connects her with the refugees. As she pops in and out of the film, increasingly wanting to provide more help, it never feels fully motivated or sincere.
Issues aside, “The Good Lie” is successful in earning a handful of its more moving moments, especially those between the Sudanese refugees and their family. As a theater experience, it’s easy to fall into its traps and find a sweet albeit unmemorable and glossy feel-good film of survival and strength. Look a little further, however, and the flaws begin to reveal themselves and “The Good Lie” looks more like a missed opportunity.