'The Good Lie': Toronto Review

A touching, generous-hearted movie that treats the immigrant experience with grace.

Director Philippe Falardeau’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated "Monsieur Lazhar" focuses on Sudanese refugees seeking a new life in America, with Arnold Oceng and Reese Witherspoon

Inspired by the experience of the thousands of so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan,” the Sudanese refugees of both genders who were allowed to emigrate to the U.S. from the 1980s to the early 2000s, The Good Lie is a touching, generous-hearted movie, sensitively directed by Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) working with a smart, sly, long-gestated script by Margaret Nagle (Boardwalk Empire).

It centers on a self-made family of refugees (all played by actors of Sudanese origin, some of whom were child soldiers themselves) who make it to the U.S. only to find the going there tough. Well-meaning Americans like Reese Witherspoon’s employment agency worker try to help smooth the transition. Scheduled to open in October, its white-people-help-black-people subplot is bound to attract comparisons with The Blind Side, even though The Good Lie is a more nuanced, less aggressively punch-the-air feel-good film. Solid box-office results and awards-season heat should follow.

But here’s the weird thing. At one point, the main protagonist, Mamere (British-based Arnold Oceng, who’s fantastic here), learns about “good lies,” untruths told to help others. Talk about irony: The current poster for is one big, maybe not-so-good lie, featuring a large image of Witherspoon’s head hovering over three small, indistinct African figures walking across the savannah. Like a recent, widely decried Italian-made poster for 12 Years a Slave, it strongly misrepresents who’s the focus of the film. It could, and no doubt will be argued that Witherspoon’s image will help draw viewers to see a movie about a sometimes upsetting subject. But the marketing does a serious disservice to the film.

It’s worth mentioning this because what’s particularly laudable about the movie is the way it puts the African characters’ experiences front and center throughout in a way few mainstream American pictures do when engaging with African-set stories. The action starts in a small Sudanese village where brothers Mamere and Theo and their sister Abital (played as children by Peterdeng Mongok, Okwar Jale and Keji Jale, respectively) are suddenly and brutally displaced when soldiers come and kill most of the adults.

The village’s few other surviving children set out on an arduous, dangerous journey to Kenya, covering 735 miles on foot, losing friends and siblings to starvation, dehydration, and murderous soldiers. Along the way, they befriend two brothers from another part of Sudan, Jeremiah and Paul (played by Thon Kueth and Deng Ajuet as children, and later by Ger Duany and Emmanuel Jal as adults). Theo makes a sacrifice to save the others that sees him forcibly conscripted by a rebel platoon, an act of heroism that will haunt Mamere for the rest of his life. 

The five children spend 13 years at the Kakuma refugee camp before they learn that they’ve been offered a chance to emigrate to the United States. But on arrival, the sponsoring agency insists that Abital must go to live in Boston while Mamere, Jeremiah and Paul are sent to Kansas City.

In Missouri, the men are met at the airport by Carrie (Witherspoon, padded up a bit to look rounder and sporting a greasy brunette mop), a brusque employment-agency fixer tasked with finding the men employment. She succeeds, but the guys suffer an almighty case of culture shock as they encounter all manner of first world gadgets and novelties they've never seen before, like light switches and the seemingly infinite variety of breakfast cereals stocked in American supermarkets. Sometimes the culture clash is played a little too broadly for laughs, like when the Africans don’t understand what a phone is, but presumably some of this must have been based on anecdotes garnered from Nagle and the other filmmakers’ research into Sudanese immigrant experiences.

In the third act, an engaged Carrie and others, including her boss (Corey Stoll) and various sympathetic bureaucrats pull together to help get Abital moved to Missouri and assist Mamere with tracking down a long-lost loved one, leading to a deeply satisfying climax, delivered with dignity and understatement.

Director Falardeau also touched on the immigrant experience in his last feature, the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, but his experience early in his career as a cameraman shooting a documentary in Sudan is obviously even more germane to this material. The film is imbued with a rich sense of empathy for both the characters and the actors playing them, and the ensemble rewards him with fully committed turns. Witherspoon is on feisty form, but she doesn’t upstage her colleagues, allowing Oceng, Duany, Jal and, to a lesser extent, the luminous Kuoth Wiel (as the adult Abital), to rightly take center stage, in the film if not on the poster.

Production companies: An Alcon Entertainment, Imagine Entertainment, Black Label Media presentation of a Black Label Media, Imagine Entertainment, Reliance Entertainment Production
Arnold Oceng, Reese Witherspoon, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Corey Stoll, Kuoth Wiel, Femi Oguns, Sarah Baker, Peterdeng Mongok, Okwar Jale, Thon Kueth, Deng Ajuet, Keji Jale, Elikana Jale
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Screenwriter: Margaret Nagle
Producers: Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Karen Kehela Sherwood, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill
Executive producers: Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Kim Roth, Ellen H. Schwartz, Deepak Nayar, Bobby Newmyer, Deb Newmyer
Director of photography: Ronald Plante
Production designer: Aaron Osborne
Costume designer: Suttirat Anne Larlarb
Editor: Richard Comeau
Composer: Martin Leon
Casting: Mindy Marin

No MPAA rating, 109 minutes