The beginning of The Good Lie plays like a documentary. Sudanese children frolic in a close-knit village, their words translated on the bottom of the screen. Two brothers play a game to memorize the names of their ancestors, and they tend their village’s cattle herds together. Suddenly, a troop of Northern Sudanese fighters brutally massacres the village, leaving a few children as the only survivors. Detached cameras follow the weakening children on their trek to a refugee camp.
If documentarians could have ethically recorded this story of the Sudanese refugees, it would have made an incredible documentary. As a fictional film, The Good Lie suffers from too many maudlin moments and amateur storytelling.
The film centers around Mamere, a Sudanese boy who carries the burden of being his village’s “chief” too young. An aspiring doctor, Mamere spends his youth trying to hold his tribe of three friends together. It’s hard enough surviving enemy soldiers, hunger, and the desolation of Kakuma refugee camp—but when the four land on a list of refugees who can begin new lives in America, Mamere’s guilt and challenges multiply.
The first third of the film, set in Africa, thrives on its real location and non-actors who were actual Sudanese refugees and child soldiers. Mamere and his friends reflect genuine gratitude and unity, and their first days in America lead to some touching fish-out-of-water moments.
For instance, when brusque employment officer Carrie (Reese Witherspoon) shows three of the refugees around their new apartment, she hardly pauses when they wonder at the electric lights. That night, they lay their mattresses on the floor and stare at the ringing telephone.
The refugee’s apartment is decorated with a quilted wall hanging of a house and the word “welcome.” The sign comes across as superficial, a moralistic covering over American red tape and unsympathetic bureaucracy. Charity workers offer little help once Mamere and his friends settle into their new home and jobs. No one takes the time to understand their culture: One of the refugees loses his grocery store job when he gives food destined for the trash to a homeless woman. He sees perfectly good food and a need; the Americans see only rules.
Most of the charity workers claim to be Christians, but their syrupy kindness is not backed up by action. It’s a strong indictment of American and Christian superficiality—but the film’s flat characterization and lack of fully empathetic Americans leads to a false dichotomy. The Sudanese seem to struggle only because Americans do not help them navigate a new culture. The Americans are all shallow and materialistic, while the Sudanese value family and honesty.
This “lesson” falls flat due to Witherspoon’s one-note character, who predictably fights for the refugees by the end of the film. Like most message movies, The Good Lie’s emotional moments pile up so much as to desensitize viewers to the point. I will say that at least for me, the surprise ending somewhat redeemed the film—perhaps, if it had spent less time on superficial Americans and more time on the refugees, it would have proved a stronger story.
Director Philippe Falardeau made an interesting choice of picking real-life Sudanese refugee survivors for his leading roles. Films can either suffer or thrive when they use non-actors. At best, they lend authenticity—as when Khmer Rouge survivor and first-time actor Haing Ngor won an Oscar for his role in The Killing Fields. At worst, they deliver a cringe-worthy amateur performance. The Good Lie’s actors land somewhere in between. While I cannot imagine any professional actors bringing such authentic joy to their performance, the Sudanese actors struggle alongside Witherspoon to deliver the many flat lines of dialog.
The book and National Geographic documentary God Grew Tired of Us recounts the real journey of a few Lost Boys of Sudan. Similar to The Good Lie, these former refugees struggle to understand American culture—but the documentary focuses on the Sudanese rather than the Americans, telling a true story about flawed, yet joyful foreigners striving to fit into a new culture. One of the documentary’s refugees, talking casually to an interviewer, leaves Americans a powerful challenge without preaching: “I think many of us have so many questions to ask, but I think we have few people to answer them.”