‘The Good Lie’ Review: Reese Witherspoon Delivers Strong and Giving Performance

The Philippe Falardeau-directed drama is based on the true-life experiences of Sudanese “Lost Boy” refugees who resettle in America

Director Philippe Falardeau makes his big studio debut with “The Good Lie,” a fictional film based on the many true-life experiences of the thousands of Sudanese “Lost Boy” refugees who came to America in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

While the posters and promotional material prominently feature Reese Witherspoon, it’s also worth noting that Falardeau and screenwriter Margaret Nagle never make the film’s Sudanese characters accessories or faceless symbols, and the end result makes for an uncommonly solid and smart take on material lesser directors would have milked for the cheapest kind of sympathy.

Falardeau also gave us the superb 2012 Canadian best foreign language Oscar nominee “Monsieur Lazhar,” and “The Good Lie” is an excellent, larger-scale follow-up still in keeping with its predecessor’s humanistic drama and understanding of cultures in clash, crisis and collaboration.

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The film starts as a group of Sudanese children are caught up in the conflicts that raged between sects in the north and south of the country. After their village is wiped out by armed men, a group of surviving children walk first towards Ethiopia, and then later to Kenya — a distance of around 600 miles — with no supplies or support. Taken in by a Kenyan refugee camp, they dream of safety … and then the film flashes forward 13 years, with our now-grown characters still awaiting release and relief, which finally arrives when they are told they’ll be going to America.

Our four Sudanese survivors are played by actors with a real link to the history of the region — all of them had their lives upended or destroyed by the Sudanese civil war. More impressively and importantly, Nagle’s script never turns the refugees into cutouts or caricatures; they’re characters, with their own agency and inner lives and outer conflicts with their brave new world in Kansas City, Missouri.

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Mamere (British-based Arnold Oceng) is the leader, lifted up by his aspirations but weighted by the burden of responsibility. Jeremiah (Ger Duany) is silent and somber but with an easy smile, a man of God in a cruel world. Paul (musician and recording artist Emmanuel Jal) is a charismatic cut-up whose laughter can turn to brooding at the flick of a switch. And Abital (Kuoth Wiel), Mamere’s sister, is strong and silent, even when separated from her brother and two lifelong friends by INS rules and regulations.

Witherspoon’s Carrie, a job-placement worker, is tasked with finding her three charges work, and she does — with no small amount of help from her boss, Jack (Corey Stoll). But while  Mamere, Jeremiah and Paul aren’t from these parts, they’re not fools, either. They devote themselves to not only trying to get by but also trying to get Abital back with them.

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The score, by Martin Léon, is deft and moving, never intrusive or maudlin; the cinematography, by Ronald Plante (who also shot the excellent “Monsieur Lazhar”) not only keeps the framing and staging natural but also manages to capture the grey-blue frozen mornings of Missouri and the scorched, barren-but-beautiful expanses of the Sudan. And editor Richard Comeau — who also cut the similarly-tough Oscar nominee “War Witch” switches locations and timelines clearly and beautifully.

Witherspoon is strong and giving in her performance, working with Oceng, Duany and Jal as a collaborator, not a competitor or guardrail. Carrie isn’t the most informed person — meeting the three, she asks “Are you from … Somalia? Senegal? Help me out, guys.”

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And while the film’s themes — faith, hope and charity — are in every frame, it is also realistic and resolute about everything from the difficulties of working with the INS in the post-9/11 world (a scene of Witherspoon in soft jazz music hell while waiting in line is easy to sympathize with) to the more abstract questions of survivor’s guilt and years of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The Good Lie” isn’t true, but it feels right — from its depiction of horrors to its endorsement of strength, its understanding of both the power of love and also where that power has to compromise. Most of the time, Hollywood applies so much energy to warming your heart, the excess energy devoted to the task turns your brain to mush. It works as well as it does precisely because of an intelligence, humanity and restraint we rarely see in Hollywood films.