“The Good Lie” is one of those cases where the
poster really does say it all: Reese Witherspoon’s large head, looking down
benevolently on three faceless Sudanese boys, comparatively scaled to the size
of ants. It’s like a kind of parody of the controversial Italian “12 Years A
Slave” posters from last year, a misleading if unsurprising marketing tactic –
Witherspoon is certainly the biggest name is this film, but she has one the
smallest parts, first appearing forty minutes into the story.
The real stars of the film, written by “Boardwalk Empire”
scribe Margaret Nagle and helmed by Canadian director Philippe
Falardeau, are first-time Sudanese actors Arnold Oceng, Emmanuel Jal, Ger
Duany, and Kuoth Wiel, who play Sudanese refugees attempting to rebuild their
lives after winning an immigration lottery to America. We first meet Mamere,
Paul, Jeremiah, and their sister Abital as children, when war breaks out in
their village. Orphaned, we watch their harrowing journey walking on-foot from Sudan
to a refugee camp in Kenya – not everyone makes it through the several horrors
and hardships in between.
Thirteen years later, the children
have now grown into adults at the camp, with Mamere acting as their “chief,”
when the good news of relocation to Kansas City reaches them. Due to some
bureaucratic ridiculousness, their sister is separated from them and sent to
Boston, and the rest of the film follows their adjustment to American life and
their determination to reunite their broken family.
One compliment that can be given to
this film is that while it may be playing up Witherspoon’s star-power, it
doesn’t go the white savior route – her role as employment advisor Carrie Davis
is the kind that in more conventional scripts would be there to learn lessons
on humility, honesty, and bravery from the the young men who are moral almost
to a fault.
Carrie is presented as decidedly
“American,” independent, sarcastic, willfully ignorant (she mistakenly assumes
the refugees are from Somalia, then Senegal), selfish to a fault. She’s the
kind of mess crafted to be “made better” by the noble immigrants. Thankfully,
however, the story is not about her – it stays firmly planted in the journey of
the three brothers, and rather than relying on her to fix their problems, the
narrative empowers them to tackle their biggest obstacles themselves.
And yet, as competently filmed and
acted as this movie is, it often skews dangerously to the side of the maudlin.
Cultural differences are one thing, growing up in extreme hardship is one
thing, but scenes in which the three brothers stare in awe at a flipping
light switch or cower at the sound of a ringing telephone, or struggle to sleep
on a bed get old, quickly. So does the whole, “they’re so happy despite such
awful lives” angle, a simplified, sanitized, and wholly Western point-of-view
in a movie that had the potential to be far more illuminating about the refugee
“The Good Lie” is carefully
designed to inspire, but not so much to enlighten. It’s one strength lies in
the fact that it actually takes time to focus on the Sudanese actors who play
second fiddle to Witherspoon and Corey Stoll in the film’s marketing materials.
Still, other than some war set pieces, fish-out-of-water montages, and an
uplifting message about the human spirit, there’s not much going on.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.