Reese Witherspoon’s name and face may be prominently displayed on the poster for The Good Lie, but the Academy Award winning actress is really just a supporting player in a wonderfully crafted story about Sudanese orphans who are given the chance to build a new life in America.
The film opens with a single title card giving a brief history of the Sudanese civil war, which began in 1983, when the northern militia wiped out whole villages in the south, leaving more than 100,000 children orphaned and displaced.
Instructed by their elders to flee to Ethiopia or Kenya for safety, children traveled as much as 1,000 miles before finding safety in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Fifteen years later, a large-scale humanitarian effort would bring 3,600 lost boys and girls to America.
This is where we meet the three Lost Boys who are the main focus of the story—Mamere, Paul and Jeremiah, characters, who are now adults—just as they are about to board a plane to America.
Before that journey can begin, however, we are taken back to a small village where we see Mamere, Paul and Jeremiah—played beautifully by Arnold Oceng, Emmanuel Jal, and Ger Duany respectfully—together with Mamere’s eldest brother, Theo, and younger sister, Abital—as children on the day their village is attacked and their elders are killed.
Though the characters in the film are fictional, The Good Lie mirrors what was experienced by many during those years.
Working from a finely balanced script by Margaret Nagle, director Phillippe Falardeau respectfully captures the heartbreaking reality of what many orphans experienced to get to the refugee camp. The first 30 minutes are pretty hard to watch but the set up is important in order to fully appreciate and understand what a fresh start in America means.
Once Mamere, Paul, Jeremiah and Abital reach the refugee camp, we return to the day they board the plane and eventually follow the group to America, where they encounter the kind of culture shock we can’t begin to fathom.
In America the story becomes a bit lighter, with many moments of humor stemming from cultural differences and “fish out of water” scenarios. The laughter is welcome after such a harrowing beginning and the humor never seems to be done for a cheap laugh.
While their new struggles pale in comparison to being in the refugee camp, settling into a new life in America isn’t easy. Witherspoon is Carrie Davis, an employment agency counselor, who helps the boys find work and becomes a surrogate mother to the group.
It’s a testament to Nagle and Falardeau’s commitment to telling the story of the Lost Boys that the movie doesn’t focus on Carrie. Commercials for the film come across as a transformational story for Witherspoon’s character—unmarried woman who can’t seem to settle down finds meaning and purpose in her life by helping others—but that’s not the case at all.
The focus stays consistently on the orphans, which is really refreshing. Many of the actors portraying the orphans have personal connections to Sudan, Both Duany and Jal are both former Lost Boys who were forced to become child soldiers. Oceng was born to a Sudanese father and a Ugandan mother, who fled the war zone with him after his father died, when he was two. Kuoth Wiel, who plays Abital, lost her father, a doctor, to the civil war in Sudan when she was five. She was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and her own brother, one of the Lost Boys, walked to Ethiopia and then Kenya before emigrating to the U.S.
The actors’ personal histories color their performances, making them emotionally richer. Also adding to the authenticity is the solid work from cinematographer Robert Plante, production designer Aaron Osborne and costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb.
Witherspoon may be the face that gets people to buy tickets, but the joyous faces of the orphans reunited will be what they remember.