On its surface, “The Good Lie” looks like one of those earnest movies doomed to fall to the bottom of weekend entertainment to-do lists simply because it sounds like something we “should” see. An uplifting testament to penniless refugees learning to make it on their own in a new, confounding world. A movie that makes us squirm over the relative abundance of riches we daily take for granted in a land of plenty. A movie that might not have been made had A-lister Reese Witherspoon not taken a fancy to it.
While it is all these things, “The Good Lie” is also a well-told tale that illuminates the experiences of the 20,000 “lost boys” (and girls) of Sudan, with such grace, insight and humor, it can be forgiven a few simplifying liberties taken in the name of moving the narrative along.
The promos pull a bit of a bait-and-switch by featuring Witherspoon because her character, a cheerfully no-nonsense employment counselor named Carrie, doesn’t show up until about 40 minutes in. The stars of this show are the three young Sudanese men, Mamere (played by a Brit of Sudanese descent, Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany) and Paul (Emmanuel Jal). Duany and Jal actually were part of the “lost” movement, as was Minnesotan Kuoth Wiel, who has a small supporting role as the sister of one of the men. As a child, she moved to Faribault with her family and is now pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles.
The movie begins documentary-style, with a mix of real and fictional footage establishing the horrendous conditions in Kenyan refugee camps. South African locations were used for Sudan, which is still so volatile it was not possible to film there. The action then jumps to 13 years later when three boys, now young men, make it out of the camps and land in Kansas with the same mix of exhilaration and clueless apprehension that Dorothy felt landing in Oz.
Something as simple as a light switch is a source of wonder. A telephone is mistaken for an alarm. The idea of throwing out expired food, as one of the young men is ordered to do at the supermarket where he works, is beyond comprehension.
Written by Margaret Nagle (best known for the FDR television biopic “Warm Springs”), the movie takes its title from an American literary classic, alluding to the “good” lies Huckleberry Finn tells to protect his friend, the runaway slave Jim. The film also references an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
In the context of the moment, it doesn’t come off as corny as it might have. Neither does the movie as a whole, largely due to the natural abilities of the Sudanese actors and to Canadian director Philippe Falardeau’s deft touch with understatement.