The Good Lie is an earnest, well-meaning film that overcomes its many flaws to tell a life-affirming story about survival and second chances. No work of fiction could ever convey the atrocities of the Second Sudanese Civil War, but this is an effective glimpse into the lives of a lucky few who escaped. It’s not looking to raise awareness or rabble-rouse. It only wants to show us that as long as there is life, there is hope. On that count, it most certainly succeeds.
Mamere (Arnold Oceng) and his older brother, Theo (Femi Oguns), are like any other young boys; they fight, they test each other’s limits, they play games reciting their familial names down through the generations. To the cattlemen of the Sudan, tribal connections are a source of both history and renewal. When civil war impinges upon their tiny village, Mamere and Theo must set aside their childish ways and venture through the wilds to find safety in Kenya.
The journey of Mamere’s remaining tribe to the Kenyan refugee camp is harrowing and heartbreaking. Tough decisions are made and many people die at the hands of guerrillas and sickness. It also includes the film’s most intense scene, as the tribe must cross a river littered with floating bodies as gunmen approach them in the distance. If Mamere and Theo were boys when their journey began, surely they are men now.
After 13 long years in a Kenyan refugee camp, Mamere and his sister, Abital (Kuoth Wiel), along with their friend, Jeremiah (Ger Duany), win a lottery to come to America. Abital is a beautiful young woman with remarkable strength, while Jeremiah is a kindly soul whose smile lights up an entire room. For the first time in their lives, each of them has hope for a new future. Once they arrive on the Mainland, an employment counselor, Carrie (Reese Witherspoon), helps Mamere and his clan start their challenging journey to assimilation. Mamere’s struggle to reconcile the dreams for his future with the regrets from his past shapes the latter half of the film.
It must be said that The Good Lie is a deeply flawed film. Though it doesn’t rely upon an abundance of fish-out-of-water clichés, Philippe Falardeau’s film is not above using familiar scenarios for comic relief. Gags with escalators, cars and other First World perils are ripped straight from Crocodile Dundee, for instance. Thankfully, the ‘whitewashing’ is kept to a minimum; none of the white characters are lionized as saints, and there is minimal patronizing of the Sudanese characters. Still, in their zeal to play nice, the filmmakers give the immigration bureaucrats an undeserved free ride rather than the roasting they so richly deserve.
For all of its flaws, however, The Good Lie is a surprisingly textured film, particularly on a thematic level. The film’s title is in reference to Twain’s literary classic, Huckleberry Finn. Huck’s “good” lies are motivated by his desire to save Jim. Writer, Margaret Nagle, weaves this same thematic device throughout her script, giving both Theo and Mamere decisions to make that will forever alter the course of their lives. It bookends the story well, as each tells a ‘good lie’ that re-affirms their honor. These men may have embraced the American way of life, but their ideals remain very much tied to the cattlemen of the Sudan.
Falardeau and Nagle have a difficult time keeping the story moving forward. Mamere’s motivations shift so quickly that we aren’t always clear what’s driving his decisions. Likewise, none of the secondary characters, including Carrie, have much on the burner to capture our attention. It’s the sheer likeability of these people that pulls us through the sluggish sections. We want to see them succeed, so we cut the movie a little extra slack.
Every human tragedy produces heroes willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the whole. The Good Lie is a movie about two such heroes. They might not be awarded medals or have holidays named after them, but to the people whose lives they touched, their sacrifices meant a second chance at life. Even if the movie isn’t perfect, it tells an important story about characters we come to like and respect on a much deeper level. The Good Lie is a gentle soul that families can enjoy together.