[Screen It]


(2014) (Reese Witherspoon, Arnold Oceng) (PG-13)

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Drama: A number of Sudanese refugees try to survive the civil war back home and then their relocation years later to the United States.
It's 1987 and Mamere (PETERDENG MONGOK), Abital (KEJI JALE) and Theo (OKWAR JALE) are siblings living in a remote Sudanese village. When soldiers attack during Sudan's civil war, those kids and others are left orphaned, and thus set off on an arduous trek through hostile environs as they try to make their way to Ethiopia. Hundreds of miles into the trip, they encounter other displaced kids, including Jeremiah (THON KUETH) and Paul (DENG AJUET), and learn that Ethiopia is no longer safe and that Kenya is now the country to head for.

They do, but Theo has them break off from the group just before another military attack, thus leaving him leading Mamere, Abital, Jeremiah, Paul and a very ill younger boy. Theo ends up captured so that the others can escape, and the ill boy dies, but Mamere leads the rest to a refugee camp where they spend the next thirteen years. Then, thanks to a Christian charity, a now older Mamere (ARNOLD OCENG), Jeremiah (GER DUANY), Paul (EMMANUEL JAL) and Abital (KUOTH WIEL) are relocated to the United States. But due to red tape, Abital is sent to Boston, while the young men arrive in Kansas City.

They're supposed to be met by a charity worker, Pamela (SARAH BAKER), but when she can't make it, employment agency worker Carrie (REESE WITHERSPOON) shows up to pick them up from the airport, initially unaware of the culture shock they're experiencing and how unprepared they are for this big move. With the help of her boss, Jack (COREY STOLL), she manages to land them jobs while also starting to feel for their plight. When word comes that Theo (FEMI OGUNS) may have arrived in their former camp, all of them do what they can to try to get him to the States as well.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
When I first heard about "The Good Lie" -- a heartfelt drama inspired by true events revolving around the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan -- and saw that it starred Reese Witherspoon as the no-nonsense white woman tasked with helping these poor young black men, three possibilities of how the film might unfold immediately came to mind. One would be that it would play like many a Hollywood flick where the tale of foreigners is told far too much through the travails of the white American protagonist. You know, like what occurred in "The Last Samurai," "Glory" and other films of their ilk.

The second was that one or more of these black characters would serve the "magic negro" part where they arrive and end up imparting enough wisdom to correct the course of the troubled white protagonist and set them on a path and journey toward happiness and/or fulfillment. Along the same lines, it easily could have gone the other direction and been yet another version of "The Blind Side" where said protagonist rides in and saves the day by giving these souls a better life.

The final one, which I really wasn't expecting -- due to the subject matter of these Sudanese refugees having lived in refugee camps for years after walking hundreds and hundreds of miles to avoid genocide -- but still considered possible, was that the film would go full tilt in the direction of a fish out of water dramedy or straight-out comedy where the laughs are supposed to come from these simple folks now being perplexed and vexed by the conveniences and technology of "the big city."

I'm happy to report that while the film does possess certain elements of all three of the above potential quandaries, clearly none of them are egregious enough to earn any demerits. While there might be a few detractors among the masses, I imagine most viewers -- critics and general audiences alike -- will probably find the flick surprisingly funny, moving and yes, ultimately entertaining in an uplifting sort of way.

As directed by Philippe Falardeau from a script by Margaret Nagle, the film thankfully focuses the majority of its attention on these Sudanese victims (all but one are boys) as they start off as young orphans -- following a military attack on their village that leaves the parents dead -- who band together and walk hundreds of miles in hopes of finding safety, first in the direction of Ethiopia and then Kenya.

After some harrowing moments, they finally end up in the refugee camp and the story then fast forwards to thirteen years after the fact where they're all now young adults (played by Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal and Kuoth Wiel) still there, but finally getting a reprieve in terms of a Christian charity organization getting them out and relocating them to America. That's when Witherspoon's unglamorous, messy and maybe promiscuous character shows up as a Kansas City based employment agency worker tasked with finding them jobs.

She isn't particularly pleased about that, but tries hard, despite being somewhat oblivious to these three guys -- the sister has been sent off to Boston to live there -- obviously having next to no clue about how to assimilate into this brave new world for them. Not surprisingly, while two of them hustle to live the American dream -- but also by their code of ethics and beliefs -- one becomes disillusioned and starts to head down the troubled path of disillusionment. And by the time one learns in an adult education class about "the good lie" from Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," it's only a question of who's going to use such a fib for the greater good of one or more of the characters.

It's hard not to truly feel for these guys and all they've been through and are currently dealing with. Yet, while Falardeau occasionally lets the material go deep and ugly (such as the tale of a lion attack, as well as guilt stemming from one boy having sacrificed himself in order to save the younger ones in his charge), the filmmaker wisely and nicely layers in moments of decent humor (some of that stemming from the aforementioned fish out of water material, but also some fairly funny lines of dialogue), as well as truly heartfelt moments that only the most hardened cynic will be able to brush off easily.

I was surprised by how much I was moved and entertained by this film, and I think many a moviegoer might just have the same reaction. Slightly playing off the feared stereotypes of such a tale but bucking the odds in terms of preventing any of that from being stereotypical or offensive, "The Good Lie" is good old-fashioned storytelling that truly works. And that's no fib. It rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed September 30, 2014 / Posted October 3, 2014

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