The beginning of the film starts us off in Sudan in the 80s, when civil war between the north and the south of the country breaks out. The villages and towns of many have been burned,
many people killed, and thousands displaced and left wandering. A group of orphans make an unbelievable trek of 785 miles from Sudan to Kenya, where they wind up in a refugee camp and make home there for 13 years before being chosen for a new journey to the United States under a relocation program for Sudanese refugees in 2001.
Mamere (Arnold Oceng), along with his brothers Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal), and sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel) arrive in New York. Abital is separated from them and ends up in Boston, while the remaining boys travel further to Kansas City, Missouri. Assigned to Carrie (Reese Witherspoon), an employment officer and her boss Jack (Corey Stoll), Mamere and his brothers adjust to a new life while struggling to come to terms with their past, an issue that has the potential to put a wedge in Mamere and Paul's relationship, all with a side dose of survivor's guilt.
The film gives us the basic background of the war, never going into political details, which is fine because it leaves the film to focus on the personal stories of these boys, who've seen too much and traveled so far. Keeping it PG-13 and open to a general audience, we're never prone to seeing the more harsher aspects of the kids' long trek. We are shown glimpses of how hard it was being out there in an unstable environment, but it is never heavily expanded on.
Once the survivors move to the U.S., things pick up a bit and we're privy to their new lives, how grateful they are, but how hard they struggle to learn and get through everything. Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, and Emmanuel Jal are able to carry the film very well. And because of Witherspoon's presence, some people will immediately want to compare this film to The Blind Side, where Sandra Bullock helps a minority out and everyone pats her on the back for swooping in and saving the day. Thankfully, The Good Lie is absolutely nothing like that.
There are reservations going into the film and the expectation that Witherspoon, the headlining name in the film, will overshadow the leads' journey with her own while they're relegated to background characters, a la Million Dollar Arm. But it's actually Witherspoon who becomes more of the supporting character, to the strength of the movie, as its focus remains on the lead characters and their struggles. Director Philippe Falardeau does a fantastic job of never straying away from the main story, only offering us glimpses of Witherspoon when need be to add something to the film, but not have her character eat up unnecessary screen time.
The Good Lie is fictionally realistic, giving us facts, but otherwise focusing more on being a feel-good film with enough of a solid backbone more so than of being a straight historical or political narrative. And while there are some things that don't flow well and some subplots that feel neglected, the film is personal, well-acted, has genuine moments of humor, camaraderie between the leads, and good emotional beats that other movies of its kind severely lack.
It isn't focused on us as Americans being the heroes who save the war-torn lives of these adults, but a human story about the repercussions of the human atrocities of war and of its survivors. Arnold Oceng especially gives a powerful emotional performance, while Witherspoon provides a quiet support that helps them along. The fact that the lead actors have ties with the Sudanese war on some level (some are the children of war and were child soldiers) helps lend credibility to the emotional moments. The Good Lie is a sad, hopeful, and feel-good film that you'll enjoy overall. Just remember to bring some tissues with you to the theater.
Release Date: October 3, 2014 | Director: Philippe Falardeau | Screenwriter: Margaret Nagle | Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Kuoth Wiel, Corey Stoll, Femi Oguns, Sarah Baker | Genre: Drama | MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence, brief strong language, and drug use