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Director Philippe Falardeau gained notice and won awards with Monsieur Lazhar. That film tackled a difficult issue head-on, but with plenty of heart.

With The Good Lie, Falardeau keeps his good heart, but tackles his subject softer and more obliquely.

Lost in Sudan

Witherspoon and Duany share a laugh in America
Witherspoon and Duany share a laugh in America

The Good Lie is a drama about some of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” — Sudanese refugees who came to America a decade ago.

The first section of the film takes place in southern Sudan. Tribal children see helicopters and bombs slaughter the adults who have only spears to defend themselves with. The children were told to walk east if anything bad were to happen, so the set out for Kenya. Though the long walk is dangerous, The Good Lie never conveys a real sense of peril, partly because the opening shot shows an older version of the children at a refugee camp. The film feels “safe” (and maybe a little too “nice”), even when the children challenge a cheetah for its kill.

Though five siblings set out, only four make it to the camp. The eldest brother Theo sacrifices himself so his younger siblings can continue on.

The four spend a decade in the Kakuma refugee camp, having nearly given up on ever getting out. Mamere (Arnold Oceng) has studied medicine and is a respected camp doctor. News arrives one day: they were accepted into the United States and are going to Kansas City, Missouri. Counselors at the camp try to prepare them by handing around a block of ice, to illustrate Kansas City’s climate. They know the names of their ancestors, but not the dates of their birth. They are all assigned a birthday of January 1. (“At least there will always be a party.”)

Welcome to America

The next act finally introduces us to Kerry (Reese Witherspoon), who works only tangentially with refugees. At the last minute, when no one else can pick up our three brothers, she greets them at the airport and welcomes them to America.

There was one unpleasant surprise in transit: only the three brothers came to Kansas City. Sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel) was placed with a family in Boston. U.S. immigration has rules about men and women.

Kerry is very naïve in assuming these refugees, fresh off the plane, will understand the ways of America. There are jokes about Jell-o, apartment living, and where food comes from (i.e., McDonald’s). These moments make for good film, but they can play a little silly. The observations aren’t all silly, though. For example, Kerry’s boss Jack has a working ranch. The brothers feel more comfortable in the rural Midwest, with a rich man’s cattle, they do in the paved and partitioned city.

As they settle in, Jeremiah (a striking angular Ger Duany) becomes “Jerry” and Mamere becomes “Mike.” They work at the grocery store, which is eye-opening in ways both silly and deep. Their third brother Paul (Emmanuel Jal) is good with hands, so instead of stocking shelves, he works as a machinist. Paul’s stoner friend at work notices a scar and asks how he got it. “Lion.”

American and African Proverbs

The primary cast are all Sudanese refugees themselves. When they are on screen, The Good Lie is at its best. But the film reveals cracks and weaknesses as it continues. The screenplay by Margaret Nagle needs a final act, so the brothers decide they want to reunite the family. It gives all involved something to work toward.

The title comes from Huck Finn, which Mamere is reading in an immersion class. For Huck, the “good lie” was told to protect Jim from slave-catchers. For Mamere, it reminds him of his older brother Theo’s sacrifice for the younger siblings. (It’s a wide-eyed, naïve reading of subversive Twain, but that’s okay; The Good Lie is meant to be pleasant, not subversive.)

Without spoiling anything specific, I can say there is a rhyming “good lie” sacrifice at the end. But it doesn’t exactly work. The motive for the sacrifice is self-defeating, and anyway it’s hard to believe that the beneficiary would accept. I think the ending probably looked better on paper than it does on screen.

I think rather than stretching Twain to fit the film’s title and themes, Nagle would have done better to lean harder on the African proverb presented at the end:

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”