News accounts of conflict, genocide and disaster often highlight numbers and generalities. On the contrary, “The Good Lie” makes the suffering caused by war and poverty personal.
There’s much tragedy and poignancy in “The Good Lie,” a war and resettlement story directed by Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”) and written by Margaret Nagle (“Boardwalk Empire”).
This tale of refugees from civil war in Sudan also turns gently comic in a fish-out-of-water way. As winning as the film’s displaced characters can be, the movie’s increasingly sitcom-like tone also undermines the incredible journey the characters make.
Spanning a period of 15-plus years, “The Good Lie” begins by depicting what was lost during the civil war in South Sudan during the 1980s. Cattle-raising village communities lived close to the land, observant of tradition.
Village life, as it’s shown in the film, must have proceeded in such ways for centuries. But an attack on a representative village by the Northern militia — soldiers armed with modern weapons designed for wholesale killing — instantly changes everything. Innocent, unarmed villagers are slaughtered.
“There is no one left but us,” a boy named Theo tells his younger brother, Mamere, and sister, Abital.
“The Good Lie” is a story about survivors. They’re all children, boys, as well as girls, who come to be known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.
After the village massacre, the story’s small band of children suffer greatly during a treacherous, thousand-mile journey make from South Sudan to Kenya. Threatened by militia, wild animals and harsh conditions, it’s almost miraculous they survive.
A 260-mile trek to Ethiopia — where village elders had told them they would be safe — proves fruitless. The group ultimately walks 785 miles to Kenya. They stay in the vast Kakuma refugee camp for 13 years.
“The Good Lie” breezes by the children’s lives in the camp, advancing to their resettlement in the United States.
Mamere (Arnold Oceng), the religious Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal) and Abital (Kuoth Wiel) are young adults when their long-awaited opportunity for a new life arrives. The script gets culture clash-based comedy from the adjustments the former refugee camp residents must make in the materially rich U.S.
The actors playing Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul and Abital — all but one of whom is played by actors affected by war in Sudan — give both whimsical and dramatic performances as these innocents abroad. Reese Witherspoon gets the film’s top billing as the employment agency counselor who helps the newcomers, but she’s largely a supporting player in a story that has some artifice but also much charm.