REVIEW: The Good Lie [2014]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 110 minutes | Release Date: October 3rd, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Philippe Falardeau
Writer(s): Philippe Falardeau

“I’m thinking about that chicken”

It isn’t easy to write a film around a tragic hot-button issue such as the “Lost Boys of Sudan” without coming across as either exploitative or manipulative. Making the result human is an even loftier goal. I won’t say screenwriter Margaret Nagle and director Philippe Falardeau were flawless in their execution of The Good Lie, but they were at least honest. Well, more honest than the marketing firm selling us on Reese Witherspoon being the lead when she’s only onscreen for a quarter of the film. They still fall into the trap of wanting the first days in America for three Sudanese refugees to play for laughs, but these lighter moments do help alleviate the otherwise heavy drama. After all, every version of this tale must include its dark truths. Having actors able to make them resonate is the key.

The performances are therefore this film’s greatest asset—both when the characters are young and on their own walking from Sudan to Kenya and once their grown up in Kansas City. Act One pulls no punches in showing us just how bad civil war between the North and South is by orphaning four children in the first five minutes via relentless and remorseless gunfire. I can even say it felt authentic after watching the very good documentary Beats of the Antonov, a fellow TIFF 2014 debut that serves as a wonderful companion to this fictionalized take. Mamere (Peterdeng Mongok), Jeremiah (Thon Kueth), Paul (Deng Ajuet), Abital (Keji Jale), and their default chief rising from the carnage Theo (Okwar Jale) are at best eight to twelve years old fending for themselves. And they portray the harsh struggle to perfection.

It’s crucial to see this genesis because their past never leaves them. It takes thirteen years for them to earn the chance to head across the Atlantic and it couldn’t have come any sooner with 9/11 eventually slamming the doors shut on Sudanese immigration thanks to the nation’s relationship with terrorists. This too becomes a big plot point and ultimately the film’s main political message to show us how much we need to vote in officials willing to look closer at the legislation and see what they can do. Now in their twenties, Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal), and Abital (Kuoth Wiel) have arrived stateside excited by their prospects for the future and permanently damaged by the events that led them there.

You’ll probably notice I don’t mention the actor who plays an adult Theo. The reason is that he was taken away when the children were hiding in tall grass on their over 700-mile journey to Kenya. He sacrificed himself so the rest could escape and thus is presumed dead by his blood siblings (Mamere and Abital) as well as his brothers by love and respect. The remaining quartet therefore bonds together, inseparable until landing in the US and discovering Abital must go to Boston because no family was willing to host her in Kansas City. It’s one more knockout blow of confusion showing how freedom comes at a price. And while The Good Lie depicts a refugee’s universal journey through these characters, it also shows the three boys’ quest to succeed and reunite with their sister.

This is where the rather overdone comedy comes in on both sides of the cultural spectrum. Because while Mamere, Paul, and Jeremiah don’t know what a telephone is, Witherspoon’s job placement specialist Carrie can’t comprehend that they wouldn’t. Once the three men acquire careers that afford them the ability to send Mamere to college, however, the drama slowly creeps back in. Carrie disappears for a spell along with the other two familiar faces in Corey Stoll‘s Jack (her boss) and Sarah Baker‘s Pamela (the boys’ immigration volunteer) and we’re left with the boys’ struggle to accept the loss of Theo, Abital, and the only way of life they ever knew. There are a few bumps in the road with broadly painted strokes of drugs, charity, and frustration, but in the end mankind’s altruistic nature shines through.

The plot progression is very neatly constructed as a result with everything Nagle could think of to inspire audience members into taking action added with the greatest emotional impact. We get tales of lions eating siblings, a matter-of-fact recounting of the massacre of one’s parents, and the constant reminder that so many thousands remain in African camps with little to no chance of escape. Including American saviors with affluence like business owner Jack and his headstrong employee Carrie—whose own recent tragedy proves the most false note of the whole because comparing her loss to that of the “Lost Boys” is a stretch of First World proportions—is the easiest way to ensure Mamere can return to Kenya one last time for the film’s bittersweet climax reaching for the heartstrings. Feel good tales need their “Daddy” Warbucks.

But if you look past the contrivances you will see that the details are still true despite their heightened depiction and condensed accumulation. Oceng, Duany, and Jal each standout in their respective roles as guilt-ravaged leader, spiritual guide, and disheartened rebel. They are the heart and soul of this story—survivors of a nightmare with lasting scars and nothing but each other to help them through. Witherspoon is good as well but the part is nowhere near as meaty or critical to the story as Sandra Bullock‘s was in The Blind Side—a relevant yet also simplistic and lazy analogy. She and Stoll give the boys’ room to take us through the hardships of rebuilding a life in a nation far from home. It’s Oceng’s Mamere leading by example to show what it means to be selfless and true.

[1] ©2014 BLACK LABEL MEDIA, LLC. Photo Credit: Bob Mahoney
Caption: (L-r) REESE WITHERSPOON as Carrie and GER DUANY as Jeremiah in the drama “The Good Lie,” a presentation of Alcon Entertainment, Imagine Entertainment and Black Label Media, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[2] ©2014 BLACK LABEL MEDIA, LLC. Photo Credit: Kelly Walsh
Caption: (Far left) OKWAR JALE as Young Theo and KON AKOUE AUOK as Young Daniel in the drama “The Good Lie,” a presentation of Alcon Entertainment, Imagine Entertainment and Black Label Media, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[3] ©2014 BLACK LABEL MEDIA, LLC. Photo Credit: Bob Mahoney
Caption: (L-r) REESE WITHERSPOON as Carrie and COREY STOLL as Jack in the drama “The Good Lie,” a presentation of Alcon Entertainment, Imagine Entertainment and Black Label Media, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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