Don’t think of The Good Lie as “Reese Witherspoon’s attempt at The Blind Side,” despite what trailers and TV spots suggest. That might cause you to dismiss it, and subsequently miss out on a heartwarming, culturally significant, though possibly ill-timed (more on that in a moment) drama about survival, community and the strong bonds of family.
The Good Lie actually has more to do with four Sudanese refugees than it does with Reese Witherspoon’s character, Carrie, who factors in to the film’s second half (and even then, only slightly). I mention the time frame because audiences checking out The Good Lie expecting a Reese Witherspoon vehicle are advised to wait for Wild, due in theaters later this year. Director Philippe Falardeau and writer Margaret Nagle based their stirring drama on the complicated journey of four Sudanese natives who, after years of hardship and loss, finally earn passage out of their war-ravaged African country and land in America. Only, in the States, new and completely unexpected problems await.
The Good Lie begins in Africa, where the children of a small village are driven out into the wild following a bloody altercation in their homes. Soldiers eliminate nearly every adult, forcing Theo (Okwar Jale) to lead a band of surviving kids on a march to a neighboring country – where they hope to find safe haven. Spoiler alert: Not every child makes it to the end of this grueling parade. By the time the children we’ve been following find refuge, Mamere (compassionate Arnold Oceng) has inherited the mantle of “tribe chief,” protector of Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal) and their sister, Abital (Kuoth Wiel).
Enduring the painful march through deadly Africa is half of The Good Lie. The movie continues – and slows down, slightly – when the siblings are transported to willing families in the United States. But again, obstacles lie in their path, for no sooner are the four refugees in America when Abital is sent to a Boston family while her “brothers” are assigned to Kansas City. Can a kindly social worker (finally, Witherspoon) help this family reunite?
The Good Lie is a compelling, fact-based story about overcoming odds to achieve a better life. And it makes so many small, but important, decisions in an effort to make the journey feel universal and true. As hard as life looks in Africa – and the terrifying headlines of Ebola invading our country might cost The Good Lie some interest at the U.S. box office – the movie doesn’t make America look like the “Land of Opportunity.” Nor is our nation broadly drawn as an iron curtain preventing anyone from entering and thriving. The Good Lie paints realistic issues facing the Sudanese immigrants, and it’s hard not to recognize the thousands who likely should their struggles on a daily basis. Using actual Sudanese immigrants like Wiel, Jal, Duany and Oceng instead of polished Hollywood actors is another simple, yet obvious, stroke of genius that helps sell The Good Lie’s important messages.
And then there’s Witherspoon, who is participating in a bit of Career Rejuvenation this year between both Wild (which she carries) and The Good Lie. Without question, she’s better in the previous film, taking on a larger part that requires more from her body and spirit. But the support she gives to her African co-stars shouldn’t be downplayed or overlooked. For every time The Good Lie was presented the opportunity to veer left and tread comfortably through the melodramatic waters of a standard feel-good feature, it takes a good decision by Witherspoon, Falardeau or the African co-stars to keep this noble, nourishing story on the right path.