A funny thing happened to “The Good Lie” on its way from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival to release in Buffalo: It disappeared. A public screening was held, but soon after, Warner Bros. yanked it from the studio’s release schedule. So sadly, my review of the film never ran in The Buffalo News. Here, in full, is my 3-star review.
There is something remarkable about “The Good Lie,” and it has to do with co-star Reese Witherspoon. The top half of the film’s poster features Witherspoon, wide-eyed, looking off into the distance with a smile on her face. Meanwhile, the actress appears in nearly two minutes of the film’s 2 minute, 30 second trailer.
What’s so remarkable about all that? Despite what the marketing campaign may have you believe, Witherspoon is not the star. In fact, she is the fourth lead in “The Good Lie,” a moving drama about three Sudanese refugees starting a new life in America.
They are the protagonists, and Witherspoon’s employment agency worker is merely a supporting player. Ponder that. Here is a major studio (Warner Bros.) star vehicle in which the three leads are played by Sudanese and Ugandan non-stars and the Heroic White Person is not the focus.
This crucial shift in perspective sets the film apart from well-intentioned but misguided dramas like “The Blind Side.” It also makes for a much stronger, more involving story.
As the film opens, a group of young children in the Sudan are forced to flee after their village is ripped apart by gunfire. Not all survive the seemingly endless walk over three countries, but at last, the four survivors arrive at a refugee camp, where they live among the thousands of displaced kids collectively referred to as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”
Years pass, and young adults Mamere (British-Ugandan actor Arnold Oceng), Abital (Sudanese-American actress Kuoth Wiel), Jeremiah (Sudanese actor Ger Duany), and Paul (Sudanese actor Emmanuel Jal) long for the opportunity to relocate to the United States.
Finally, they are chosen, and told Kansas City will be their new home. However, the group’s joy is short-lived, as Abital instead must head to Boston. It’s a devastating moment for the foursome, and one of the film’s many examples of bureaucratic nonsense.
Now a trio, Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul continue their journey to Kansas City and are eventually met at the airport by a brash but good-humored employment agency worker, Carrie Davis, winningly played by Witherspoon.
She is taken aback by the sweet, good-natured group, and so is the audience. The performances of Oceng, Duany, and Jal are so winning, and so believable, that it is hard not to be charmed. They are unaware of telephones, McDonald’s, and pizza, and that is played for laughs — perhaps too many laughs, actually.
The film’s middle section focuses on the struggles Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul face in the working world, while also developing Witherspoon’s Carrie. Her compassion for the trio grows, and soon she is helping in their attempts to reunite with Abital.
“The Good Lie” ties things up a bit too neatly, moves past some of the struggles refugees face on a daily basis a little too quickly, and includes a few too many culture-shock jokes, but it is undeniably moving. The film’s final chunk, featuring a satisfying if not unsurprising twist, is particularly effective.
Director Philippe Falardeau’s somber 2012 drama “Monsieur Lazhar” received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and his follow-up is an ambitious one. He impressively juggles a large cast and locations on two continents, and manages to avoid the syrupy turns that can plague similarly ripped-from-the-headlines stories.
The lead trio is particularly strong, and Witherspoon, “House of Cards” vet Corey Stoll make the most of their supporting roles.
What is most impressive — and downright admirable — is that the film brings the story of Sudan’s Lost Boys to the masses from the Lost Boys’ perspective. It’s a story that must be told, and if it needs a Hollywood star and a happy ending to be palatable, so be it.