Based on its trailer and promotional material, you could easily by fooled into thinking that The Good Lie is a vehicle for Reese Witherspoon to be handed an Oscar for her performance as a good-doing white mid-Westerner, a la Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. Surprisingly and thankfully, this is not the case. Rather, relegating Witherspoon to supporting status, The Good Lie instead turns its focus to the undeniably more important and more captivating story of the very true and horrendous ordeal of the Lost Boys of Sudan. In doing so, The Good Lie tells a simple yet moving story with an air of authenticity and honesty that elevates it above a midday movie melodrama.
The Good Lie is the story of three Sudanese refugees, Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany) and Paul (Emmanuel Jal), who are just some of the child survivors of the second Sudanese Civil War known as the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’. Set in the early 2000s, the movie follows the story of the three brothers as they are re-settled and adjust to work life in America whilst attempting to be reunited with sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel). They are guided through the process by their employment agent Carrie (Witherspoon, sporting a darker and more wholesome look), her boss Jack (Corey Stoll, used far too sparingly) and their faith-based charity liaison rep Pamela (a bouncy Sarah Baker).
Margaret Nagle’s screenplay is both sensitive and sappy in equal measure, hitting all the familiar beats in telling its coming-to-America/fish-out-of water story. Throughout the film, Nagle remains mostly faithful to her protagonist’s story; for example, beginning the film in the midst of a sudden and brutal attack on the Sudanese village where Mamere, Abital and their brother Theo live. Their sense of loss, fear and confusion are compounded by the quick juxtaposing shots of the beautiful desert landscape, swooping helicopters and guerrilla soldiers. Indeed, it is the flashbacks to these past ordeals that help truly drive home the trauma, guilt, grief and longing that hang so heavily on Mamere, Jeremiah and Paul’s faces.
Likewise, Canadian director Philippe Falardeau (whose last feature was the Oscar nominated Monsieur Lazhar) skilfully and subtly shows the brutal and almost barbaric violence that plagues the country without overstating or oversimplifying it. Rather, Falardeau works with Nagle to show the violence and unrest as just two of the many dangers, along with starvation, a lack of water and illness, that pose an ever-present threat to the children as they continue on their gruelling and punishing trek to safety. Of particular mention, is a tense scene involving the children crossing a river and a powerful moment involving the children drinking from a tin, which leaves the viewer with a palpable sense of dread and sadness at what the children will experience.
It is in these parts of the story that The Good Lie draws its strength; when it focuses on the character’s experiences rather than trying to draw emotion from you. This is helped in large part by its core group of actors. Drawing on their own biographies as Sudanese refugees, child soldiers and descendants; Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal and Kuoth Wiel use their firsthand experience to deliver real, raw and powerful performances. Their authenticity lends an air of credibility and believability to some of the films more gimmicky and predictable moments. The sheer delight of the men as they do simple things, like eat MacDonald’s, complete mundane work tasks and share jokes, are equally as delightful for the viewer as they are for their characters, thanks to the actors’ genuine charm, sincerity and lack of pretence. Never has a ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ joke seemed quite as funny or original as it does here.
Of course, just like the story, not everything is smooth within The Good Lie. In fact, it is when it gets to its core complications in its third act that the movie begins to falter. Its clunky and lumpy jumps in transition, particularly as we follow Mamere on his return journey home and the boys’ plight to be reunited with their sister, weigh the film down. This is especially the case when you consider the far worse circumstances that our protagonists faced in the beginning of the film. The sheer strength and determination they exhibited in their trek seems to magically disappear in light of these easily more manageable hurdles.
These story flaws are however are a minor criticism. If ever there was a story that was heart-warming, emotional and honest enough to deserve your tears, it is this one. Grounded by its South Sudanese populated cast, who bring their own first-hand experiences to deliver emotional, candid and genuine performances, and a story that brings together real experiences of tragedy with lighter moments of hope, The Good Lie is a feel-good and inspiring tale well worth believing in.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10