Anchored by purposefully misleading marketing campaign (that’s also somewhat cynically necessary for a major studio film like this to have any small amount of success), The Good Lie isn’t anything like the trailer and poster that’s being used to sell it. It’s strange to start talking about a film’s marketing campaign before talking about a film, but I feel somehow compelled to. The Good Lie isn’t just a good film. It’s a great film that’s being marketed as just another dumbed down “white people save the disenfranchised and damaged minority” picture that has glutted the marketplace for decades now. In reality, front and centre star Reese Witherspoon has only about 30 minutes of screen time here, which means English language, Hollywood backed debut of Canadian director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) has been pitched to American audiences as a bit of a clever bait and switch that hopefully draws people into seeing a film that’s actually inspirational, has something to say, and never condescends to the audience just for the sake of tugging on the heartstrings.
During the Second Sudanese Civil War in the early 1980s, a group of children are separated from their families and on the run for their lives. With only each other to rely upon, they make their way across the inhospitably arid countryside with hopes of travelling thousands of miles to reach a refugee camp in neighbouring Ethiopia. Along the way, their strong willed leader sacrifices himself to be captured by mercenaries so the rest of the group doesn’t get captured. The remaining children make their way to the refugee camp where they are forced to wait for thirteen years for some sort of placement elsewhere.
This, and not anything to do with Witherspoon or any sort of feel good sentiment, is the first forty minutes of the film. It’s apparent right off the bat that the movie you’re getting definitely isn’t the one that’s being sold to you, and for once that’s refreshing and terrifying at the same time. The violence on display in the early going is real, visceral, and as deeply troubling as it should be. These are soldiers who would willingly open fire on young children, and if they don’t get killed, they’ll either be enslaved or forced into becoming child soldiers. The dead are all around these young men and woman. A sequence where these kids are forced to cross a river of dead bodies floating upstream while being shot at is one of the most harrowing scenes in a film this year.
Then, Falardeau and screenwriter Margaret Nagle further refuse to give in to convention by not having anyone from within or without rush to save the people involved because that would ring false and hollow when trying to do a faithful examination of the refugee experience. The frustrations spent waiting and not having a home for years comes across nicely without belabouring the point. We as an audience have seen firsthand everything that led to these people making their way to the camp, and it’s certainly preferable, but as a compassionate audience, by this point we would want action and justice for those who have been pushed out and aside. That sense of restlessness is hard to convey without a film looking like it’s spinning its wheels, but Falardeau nicely focuses on the positives in the lives of these characters while never losing site of the overarching negatives.
Eventually, the three young men we have been following and their surrogate sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel) are now fully grown adults and have finally been placed in a missionary program that will bring them to America. Since the only host family available to Abital is in Boston, they are separated as the remainder of the “lost boys” are sent to Kansas City. This puts the still uneasy authority figure of the boys, Mamere (Arnold Oceng), in a bad position since it looks like he didn’t put up a fight to keep them together. The more spiritually minded Jeremiah (played by Ger Duany, who in real life was a child soldier in Sudan until escaping at 14) understands Mamere’s decisions, but it leaves him in an unenviable position with the more passionate and less understanding Paul (Emmanuel Jal, a musician who was also a child soldier growing up).
The next part of the film is what the marketing team at Warner Brothers has hitched their wagon to, but it’s still not the film being sold. The middle third of the film deals with the men trying to adjust to a world they’re unaccustomed to, but Falardeau and Nagle aren’t trying to foist easy answers that espouse how great America is compared to the third world or how a few carefully placed white people can make all the difference in life.
They’re picked up by put upon employment agency worker Carrie, played by Witherspoon, and it isn’t even her job to pick them up. They were supposed to be picked up by a perky, well meaning church worker (played nicely with tongue firmly in cheek by Sarah Baker), who is exactly the type of fake and phony hero one would expect from this kind of studio product. Only here, she’s an ineffective joke. She’s never around and barely does anything outside of getting the guys an apartment to live in. She brings these young men over in the spirit of Christianity and pious altruism, and then just abandons them again and forces them to become everyone else’s problem all over again.
And that’s kind of brilliant, and while the film does have a pair of helpful Americans in the form of Witherspoon and her ex-slash-fellow social worker Corey Stoll, there’s still not much either can do for them. The situation here is completely bureaucratic and backwards, and Carrie has become a complete cynic. She’s also not very good at her job, which is a nice twist. Carrie tries, but she gets frustrated when she eventually gets to a point where she knows her hands are going to be tied by the system. She doesn’t give any grandstanding speeches, she learns more from the guys than she could ever teach them, and she never talks down to anyone except for people who fake like they are nice and caring.
The Good Lie treats people like human beings and not clichés or archetypes. People do good. People screw up. People will get mad, sad, and joyous, but they’re never exploited for their feelings in a bid to give an audience a reason to feel better about themselves. The biggest clue, which does get explained in the film, comes from the film’s Huck Finn referencing title: it’s about noble lies people tell themselves and others to survive in harsh and sometimes dangerous situations.
The young men – all of whom are exceptionally cast – are never used as delivery devices for tired fish out of water gags, and the few times the film elicits chuckles from sometimes standard jokes (car sickness, a first trip to a McDonalds), they work because by this point the film has spent nearly an hour setting up just how out of place they are and the gags are simply stated, fleeting, unobtrusive, and feel like they’re based in some sense of reality.
The trio of leads also function as a perfect counterpoint to white, privileged America, and the middle section of the film functions more as a commentary on the sad state of privileged culture than anything else. These young men have lived through too much to lie about petty things, even on a job application. Jeremiah is aghast to watch good, usable food being thrown away at his grocery store job. Paul gets forced into working a soul sucking manufacturing gig where all that can be done to stave off boredom is to smoke weed all day. Mamere desperately wants education and to become a doctor, but he has a hard time achieving it and crippling self doubt and depression over past decisions he’s made. These aren’t one note characters, but the world they have been placed into wants to treat them like they are. Thanks to Falardeau and Nagle having patience and faith that the audience can pick up on that, viewers will get a better look within themselves when watching the plight of these young men on screen.
So then the question becomes, will the film ultimately cop out and ramp up to a conclusion where everything gets wrapped up nicely and the USA is a-okay? Nope. The final third decides to go in a completely different direction and back to Africa as Mamere attempts to navigate a backdoor diplomatic agreement to bring the boys former leader to the United States after it turns out that he’s alive and waiting to come back. By this point, the story is taking place just after 9/11 and getting anyone into and out of the camp is virtually impossible. There’s also a real doubt as to whether or not the letter sent to Mamere was actually written by the person left behind or it’s a con artist trying to get out of the country. To make matters worse, not only will Mamere be forced to lie to get this man to America, but he has to physically go over there and search through the millions of people still in the camp just to find him because record keeping is so terrible over there due to continued overcrowding.
This is thrilling stuff and a heck of a twist that leads to a switcheroo ending that feels earned and uplifting instead of something tacked on to make mainstream audiences feel better about themselves. The Good Lie feels like a best case scenario for this kind of film. It feels unsullied and relatively uncompromised; free of sanitization because the material, direction, and performances are strong enough to sustain it all. It’s something special and so good that it’s bound to fly beneath the radar of most people. Let’s hope the trailer was enough of a “good lie” to get people to see an excellent film.