The world does not need another movie about the inspirational things well-to-do white people do for underprivileged people of color, particularly from three of the producers of The Blind Side. And yet the small grace of The Good Lie, from Monsieur Lazhar director Philippe Falardeau, is that it fully recognizes the problem of telling stories of black hardship through the prism of white charity, and does everything it can to avoid those pitfalls. It takes two reels—or about 35 minutes, in godless-video-projection time—for Reese Witherspoon to even show up as a crusader of the Erin Brockovich/Leigh Anne Tuohy variety, a Kansas City employment agent who gets involved in the lives of three Sudanese “Lost Boys.” Until then, it’s entirely the Lost Boys’ story, and that remains fundamentally true after she takes over, despite a questionable single-gal redemption arc that dovetails her triumphs with theirs.
Dispensing with the political context in a few titles and voiceover narration, The Good Lie opens with the razing of a peaceful village in South Sudan, which sends a septet of young children on a thousand-mile walk across the desert and plains toward Kenya. Though only two are brothers, the default “chief” Theo and his younger brother Mamere, they form a surrogate family along the arduous journey, where they have to survive starvation and thirst, encounters with predatory animals, and gunfire from hostile soldiers. By the time they make it to a Kenyan refugee camp, only four are left: Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal), and their one sister, Abital (Kuoth Wiel). After 13 years in the camp, a faith-based charity finally grants them a chance to come to America, but while the boys are placed in Kansas City, Abital is forced to relocate to Boston instead.
Enter Witherspoon’s Carrie, who’s introduced bedding a Waffle House manager at a local motel before getting the call to pick up Sudanese travelers at the airport. And with that, The Good Lie sends a dubious message: Carrie’s interest in casual sex—and her disinterest in keeping a clean house, revealed later—implies she needs these men, plus a romantic interest, to get her life in order. At first, she keeps her involvement strictly professional, landing two of the immigrants jobs as grocery-store stockmen, and the third as a line worker in a faucet factory, but their problems adjusting to American life, combined with their desperate desire to reunite with Abital, convince Carrie to advocate on their behalf. Cut to brassy one-liners like, “Who do I have to screw around here to see a goddam immigration supervisor?!”
While all of this sounds like the stuff of risible fact-based inspirational drama, Falardeau and his screenwriter, Margaret Nagle, add compelling details and small grace notes where they can. For one, the film digs into the political bureaucracy that affected Sudanese refugees in America—and other refugees, sometimes family members, who were due to settle in America, too—in the wake of 9/11, when security restrictions limited travel from nations deemed hostile. It also levels a righteous broadside against the U.S. immigration system, which is clogged here by long waits and red tape that can only be avoided by expensive lawyers, absurd workarounds, or Reese Witherspoon making a big scene.
The true protagonist of The Good Lie is Mamere, who bears the twin burdens of responsibility for the other three and the terrible sacrifice his older brother made for the group. In between the obligatory comic scenes of the Lost Boys adjusting to American culture—looking quizzically at ringing phones and drinking straws, referring to pizza as “miracle food”—the film tries to understand points where Sudanese values differ from those of their adoptive country, particularly with regard to honor, duty, and familial responsibility. As played with a pinched smile by Oceng, Mamere is a troubled optimist, pressing through tragedies and hardships that would crush a man of lesser character. Through all the platitudes and tearjerking moments in The Good Lie, Mamere asserts himself and makes tough decisions apart from Carrie’s guidance and advocacy. In movies of this type, that’s rare.