Bursting with good intentions but opting for uplift over realism, “The Good Lie” is a film that should be much better than it is. The subject is certainly one worth dealing with—the experience of immigrants from war-torn regions of the third world trying to make their way in the very different cultural environment they face in the United States. But the treatment feels more like feel-good fantasy than serious examination. By aiming to be a crowd-pleaser, it fails to do justice to a harrowing part of recent history.
The strength of Philippe Falardeau’s film lies largely in the performances by the young men who play the three Sudanese refugees who come to America a year before the events of 9/11 that shut down the program that brought them here. Arnold Oceng is the reserved leader Mamere, Ger Duany the tall, religiously-minded Jeremiah, and Emmanuel Jal the more volatile Paul, and they’re all survivors—along with their sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel)—of a massacre that killed all of their fellow townsmen. In what amounts to an extended prologue in which all are played by younger actors, they’re shown making the dangerous trek from Sudan to Kenya, where they’re placed in an overcrowded camp; along the way they’ve lost two of their comrades, one to illness and the other—their brother Theo—to capture by marauding soldiers, something for which Mamere will always blame himself). Once they get to the U.S., the boys are all placed in Kansas City, while their sister is assigned to a family in Boston—a separation that’s difficult for all of them.
The focus of the film is on the difficulty the three men have in acclimating themselves to life in Kansas City—something that they do under the guidance of Carrie (Reese Witherspoon), an employment counselor who becomes involved with the refugees after being enlisted to pick them up at the airport and take them to the apartment secured for them by a church group. She manages to find them jobs—Mamere and Jeremiah as clerks at the grocery store and Paul at a machine-manufacturing factory—but their relationship develops further, as she and her boss Jack (Corey Stoll) intervene when trouble arises for them, especially when it comes to trying to bring their family back together in the post-9/11 world. That effort, in fact, will explain the title, a phrase drawn from Mark Twain that Mamere comes upon during a classroom reading of “Huckleberry Finn,” and which he embraces as justification for a ruse that he concocts to reunite his siblings when it seems impossible to do so.
One can be thankful that “The Good Lie” never turns into a vehicle for Witherspoon, whose character isn’t allowed to overshadow the Sudanese trio. Carrie isn’t an unimportant part of the narrative cobbled together by Margaret Nagle and based loosely on episodes drawn from the lives of actual “lost boys,” but she never takes stage center, remaining pretty much a supporting character in the drama. That may come as a disappointment of her fans, but she and Stoll show an admirable degree of restraint in allowing the focus to remain where it should.
But while that’s admirable, the portrayal of the trials of Mamere, Jeremiah and Paul are depicted in entirely too “nice” a fashion, as a serio-comic fish-out-of-water scenario that might have been right at home in a Hallmark Hall of Fame telefilm. There are moments when the screenplay seems about to delve into the darker aspects of this story—as in Paul’s drug usage—but they’re fleeting and never very convincing. Even the early part of the picture, showing the young refugees’ initial trek to safety, is done very decorously, without the searing horror that was part of the actual carnage. It’s as though the makers were so anxious to present a story that would be inspiring—and would include a good Christian message (these boys are devout, with Jeremiah taking a prominent role in the local congregation) that they were afraid to go anywhere too bleak or depressing, and remained content with mildly amusing “culture shock” anecdotes.
Still, it’s impossible not to empathize with the characters that Oceng, Duany and Jal create, and the support they receive from Witherspoon and Stoll is a welcome example of a refusal to steal the spotlight from where it ought to be. The production values are more than adequate throughout, with Ronald Plante’s cinematography particularly good.
“The Good Lie” tackles an important part of the recent immigrant experience in America. It’s a pity that the treatment of it is so bland.