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[WARNING: Spoilers ahead for The Good Lie.]
The Good Lie tells the story of a group of Sudanese refugees who come to the U.S., where Reese Witherspoon‘s character assists them in finding employment and ends up helping them reunite with other members of their family. The film shows their early struggles in Africa and the challenges and rewards they experience in America.
But in a twist at the end of the film, one of the refugees, Mamere, makes a heartbreaking sacrifice that gives the film its title. After returning to Africa in hopes of finding his estranged brother Theo and bringing him back to the U.S., Mamere is unable to secure the necessary paperwork to bring Theo with him, so he has his brother pretend to be him so that Theo can go to the U.S. while Mamere stays behind to work in the hospital at the refugee camp. Although Mamere had been studying in the U.S. to become a doctor, he seems at peace with his decision to sacrifice that for Theo.
The actor who plays Mamere, Arnold Oceng, agrees that the character is happy at the end of the movie.
“I think he’s happy because as you’ve seen from the film, he has an emotional arc. From a very young age, he had to be the chief. So he had to look after everybody. That’s a huge responsibility for a child. And especially a child who’s been suffering from trauma from losing his father, his mother, his brother. That’s a lot of trauma,” Oceng explained to The Hollywood Reporter at a special screening of The Good Lie last week in New York.
All his character wanted to do was repay Theo, Oceng said, after Theo sacrificed for him by allowing himself to be conscripted by a rebel platoon, an event that continues to haunt Mamere in the U.S., particularly as one of the other refugees continues to bring it up.
“He’s been fighting with it. He just wants to repay him,” Oceng added. “And he’s got Paul there, digging at him every minute, like ‘You’re not Theo, you’re not Theo,’ and I think he’s at peace with his decision. All he’s ever wanted to do is just give back to Theo. And the whole film is about sacrifice and that’s one of his sacrifices. Hence why The Good Lie.”
Screenwriter Margaret Nagle agreed that the choice was one that Mamere had to make.
“Mamere couldn’t live with the burden of [Theo’s] sacrifice anymore in his own life, with Paul.… And in a way it’s an emergence for Mamere to be the man that he was meant to be,” Nagle told THR. “So even though it’s sad, I fully believe that he’s going to be very successful. Everybody wants to know what happens to him, and I know, in my mind, what happens to him, but it’s going to be OK.”
Furthermore, she believed it was the right way to end the story, in order to continue to accurately reflect the feelings of Sudanese refugees, known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”
“These guys would live and die for each other, that’s just who they are,” Nagle said. “I talked to a group of ‘Lost Boys’ and I was telling them how I ended the film and they went, ‘How did you know? How did you know that?’ That’s what they’re about. They’re about more than surviving.”
During the 11 years it took Nagle to get The Good Lie made, the screenwriter worked hard to understand Sudanese refugees and the country. And one of the actors, Ger Duany, who was a Sudanese refugee himself, was impressed by Nagle’s grasp of their language.
“She finds the tone and the language, because when the Sudanese speak, our language in English can come off as a poetic language,” he said. “If you pay attention to all of the characters, they speak metaphorically. She captured that language.”
The script also spoke to producer Molly Smith, who has a sibling-like relationship with a “Lost Boy” and whose Black Label Media agreed to finance the film after “everyone in town … said no,” as Nagle characterized it. The script came to Smith and partner Trent Luckinbill‘s company as a writing sample when they were considering Nagle for another project, but it was The Good Lie that moved them.
“It’s so unique, and Margaret Nagle’s storytelling is so beautiful that she actually puts you in the shoes of these children, takes you on this journey, and to be able to go through this story of children of war fleeing a civil war and in the same movie to be able to laugh and enjoy the same moments that you do in America, I just thought that was pretty great storytelling. It just moved me in a way that I hadn’t been moved in years of reading scripts,” Smith told THR.
She added that the story gave her new company the confidence to finance a film that had been in the works for a while and that studios had rejected.
“I think the confidence was just the humanity in the story, and I think it’s very rare that you find a script that really moves you in a real, human way,” Smith said. “I just felt that the way she told their story was accessible to audiences, so it didn’t feel like homework. It didn’t feel like a documentary. It really felt like a brother-and-sister story. A story about family, just in an unusual backdrop, so I think any confidence we had was just the heart and humanity of the story and hoping that that would somehow connect with audiences that craved that.”
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