Good Lie, The (United States/Kenya, 2014)

October 26, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Good Lie, The Poster

As its backdrop, The Good Lie recalls the atrocities committed upon the indigenous population of Southern Sudan by the government during the Second Sudanese Civil War. In order to present these events in a fashion that wouldn't traumatize potential viewers, the filmmakers elected to sanitize the horrors to a PG-13 level. This flawed approach diminishes the visceral impact that a more graphic depiction of the situation might have engendered. Think Hotel Rwanda or any movie about the Holocaust. Hiding/softening the inhumanity inherent in a conflict like the one depicted in The Good Lie's first 30 minutes distances us from the characters. We don't see what they see or feel what they feel; we are presented with shadows and echoes. The images in The Good Lie have the power to disturb but lack the gut-punch impact necessary to give us an immediate and lasting connection to the protagonists.

The bulk of The Good Lie depicts the assimilation of four of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" into American society in the year 2001 (they were initially displaced from their homes in 1988 and spent 13 years living in a refugee camp). They are Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal), and Abital (Kuoth Wiel). Only two are blood siblings - Mamere is Abital's older brother. Because she is female, immigration rules do not allow Abital to be relocated to Kansas City with the others; she is sent to live with a host family in Boston. Thereafter, The Good Lie follows the three male friends as they establish themselves and work with a pair of American employment counselors, Carrie (Reese Witherspoon) and Jack (Corey Stoll), to bring Abital to Kansas City.

The narrative trajectory is uneven; character identification is limited and there's little dramatic momentum. Although there are some crowd-pleasing episodes and a few amusing fish-out-of-water vignettes, the movie's emotional impact is surprisingly weak for a story that ventures into such deep, churning waters. There's a sense that The Good Lie wants to say something profound but the message is as muddled as its delineation of history is. We're left with a quartet of sympathetic individuals who have lived through hell and struggle to start a new life in a new country. The description is more heart-warming than the presentation.

Although it's possible that Reese Witherspoon's participation in the project was one of the keys to its being made, her presence is a double-edged sword. Her role as the American employment counselor Carrie is not large. She doesn't appear until the 35-minute mark and, even after that, Carrie is never more than a supporting figure. Nevertheless, Witherspoon inadvertently steals scenes from her less experienced co-stars. (Of the actors playing the four Sudan refugees, only Arnold Oceng has a lengthy filmography.) She possesses a camera presence they lack. Witherspoon's presence therefore creates an unintentional imbalance. The film's marketing campaign, which overemphasizes her involvement (her face dominates the poster), exacerbates the situation, making The Good Lie seem like "a Resse Witherspoon movie" when, in fact, it isn't.

The Good Lie isn't a bad film; it's just bland. Certainly, the filmmakers are sincere and they tell a story that doesn't commonly reach multiplexes. (In fact, Warner Brothers made a last minute decision not to widen the film's footprint beyond the initial limited release.) The problem is that one can sense a more potent motion picture lurking beneath the surface. As a result of decisions made in how the narrative develops and how graphic the visual presentation is, The Good Lie feels like an echo of its potential.

Good Lie, The (United States/Kenya, 2014)

Director: Philippe Falardeau
Cast: Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Kuoth Wiel, Reese Witherspoon, Corey Stoll
Screenplay: Margaret Nagle
Cinematography: Ronald Plante
Music: Martin Leon
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2014-10-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In English and Arabic Sudanese with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1