The Good Lie
(M) Starring: Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Reese Witherspoon, Kuoth Wiel
The title of The Good Lie refers to a lesson learned by Huckleberry Finn — that a lie told for noble purposes can be excused. 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 appear until half an hour in. And they did that, 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 focuses upon four such children — Mamere, 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, then to the Kenyan border. After 785 miles of walking, they arrive at Kakuma Refugee Camp, where they will remain for 13 years, before being told they are to be relocated to America. On arrival, though, they discover that the three brothers are to settle 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 brothers struggle to fit in and, with the help of an employment agency counsellor, endeavour to make a life for themselves in Missouri, they also work to reunite their family.
The demands of movie marketing mean Reese Witherspoon has to top billed and feature strongly in advertising. But this isn’t her film. While the trailers for The Good Lie would suggest it will be The Blind Side without gridiron, its great strength is allowing this story to not be hers. Rather than another white-person-rescuing-black-people narrative, the young Sudanese characters are the heroes of their own story.
The central quartet of African characters are all played by actors who are 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, especially in moments of high emotion, knowing their real-life backgrounds adds to overall sincerity.
Rather than another white-person-rescuing-black-people narrative, the young Sudanese characters are the heroes of their own story.
But as much as The Good Lie is refreshingly different in its willingness to put the African characters front and centre, there are moments that are frustratingly familiar. Screenwriter Margaret Nagle drew upon real experiences in creating her fictional characters, which makes it disappointing when things feel a bit inauthentic or rehashed. There is some gentle culture-clash humour drawn from watching these characters acclimatising to American life. 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 a passion project for Nagle and French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau. Nagle fought for the best part of a decade to bring this important story to the screen.Falardeau was drawn to the project (his first English-language feature) after being forced, years earlier, to abandon a documentary he was shooting in Sudan about the plight of refugees.
While the execution is imperfect, it’s easy to forgive such elements because the story is still incredibly affecting and empathetic. Ultimately, The Good Lie is more than just a movie: the producers have launched ‘The Good Lie Fund’ (www.goodliefund.org), hoping to use the film’s profile to raise funds for educational and humanitarian programs for Lost Boys and Girls communities.