Movie Review: Reese steps in the background to make “The Good Lie” work

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The saga of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” refugees who wound up in America after fleeing the civil war there, earns an engaging, tear-jerking retelling in “The Good Lie,” a fictionalized account of what faced them.
Sudanese children, often orphaned, fled the country in the ’80s and spent much of the ’90s in refugee camps in neighboring countries. About 3,600 of them were allowed to emigrate to America pre-9/11. “Good Lie” follows a handful of them, from the brutal assault on their village to their thousand-mile trek to safety.
But “safety” is just the first long leg of their journey. Safety means, in the case of Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul and their sister Abital, merely escape from the free fire zone, where Islamic rebels burn, shoot or kidnap anything in sight. These children have seen death, buried friends and comrades and crossed rivers and deserts just to grow up in a Kenyan refugee camp.
goodliekidsThey are young adults — played by Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal and Kuoth Wiel — by the time the United States agrees to take them in.
Canadian director Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”), working from a script by Margaret Nagle (“Warm Springs”) then finds the lighter side of this tragic tale of survival. And he does it with such a deft touch that the weight of that long prologue never leaves the movie — even after that pixie Reese Witherspoon shows up.
She plays Callie, a Kansas City employment counselor, entirely too provincial to know what she’s getting into when she picks up the three boys (Abital, their sister, has been sent to Boston) at the airport. Their preparations for America consisted mainly of being handed a piece of ice to show how much colder it is in the Midwest than it is in Africa.
“The Good Lie” — the titles come from Huckleberry Finn’s lesson in lies that serve a moral purpose — shifts from survival epic to fish-out-of-water comedy as “Stone Age” Sudanese villagers are exposed to electricity, telephones, modern appliances and American humor for the first time. Cute.
They’ve all learned their English from the Bible, and Mamere (Oceng) expresses himself in the most delightfully dated and genteel way.
“You make our hearts throb with your many kindnesses…May you find a husband to fill your empty house.”
Witherspoon plays the straight man to these “lost” lads. But this formulaic feel-good film succeeds or fails on their performances, and the guys are winners. Oceng makes the responsible, guilt-ridden Mamere charming, Jal brings a bitter confusion to Paul, who gets more “lost” as he starts to hang out with the stoners at the factory where he finds a job. And Ger Duany has a lanky soulfulness as Jeremiah, the moral center of their group, a would-be preacher who narrates the story even as he serves as a tall, thin sight gag.
Witherspoon’s appearance got the movie made and there was early talk of a “Blind Side” sort of Oscar nomination for it. But Callie’s earthy, working class common sense is more the icing on this cake than a central part of it. It’s a performance by a performer with the grace to know it’s not about her, and she surrenders the spotlight.
“Good Lie” rambles a bit and telegraphs its ending. But its earnestness in reminding us of this story and just what America represents to the world’s rising tide of refugees, and why, makes it a winner, a valuable history lesson wrapped in a feel-good bow.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence, brief strong language and drug use
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Arnold Oceng, Kuoth Wiel, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Corey Stoll
Credits: Directed by Philippe Falardeau , written by Margaret Nagle. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 1:50

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