Review: 'The Good Lie' is Carefully Designed to Inspire, But Not So Much to Enlighten (In Theaters Tomorrow)
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Review: 'The Good Lie' is Carefully Designed to Inspire, But Not So Much to Enlighten (In Theaters Tomorrow)

The Good Lie"The Good Lie" is one of those cases where the

poster really does say it all: Reese Witherspoon’s large head, looking down

benevolently on three faceless Sudanese boys, comparatively scaled to the size

of ants. It’s like a kind of parody of the controversial Italian “12 Years A

Slave” posters from last year, a misleading if unsurprising marketing tactic –

Witherspoon is certainly the biggest name is this film, but she has one the

smallest parts, first appearing forty minutes into the story.

The real stars of the film, written by “Boardwalk Empire”

scribe Margaret Nagle and helmed by Canadian director Philippe

Falardeau, are first-time Sudanese actors Arnold Oceng, Emmanuel Jal, Ger

Duany, and Kuoth Wiel, who play Sudanese refugees attempting to rebuild their

lives after winning an immigration lottery to America. We first meet Mamere,

Paul, Jeremiah, and their sister Abital as children, when war breaks out in

their village. Orphaned, we watch their harrowing journey walking on-foot from Sudan

to a refugee camp in Kenya – not everyone makes it through the several horrors

and hardships in between.

Thirteen years later, the children

have now grown into adults at the camp, with Mamere acting as their “chief,”

when the good news of relocation to Kansas City reaches them. Due to some

bureaucratic ridiculousness, their sister is separated from them and sent to

Boston, and the rest of the film follows their adjustment to American life and

their determination to reunite their broken family.

One compliment that can be given to

this film is that while it may be playing up Witherspoon’s star-power, it

doesn’t go the white savior route – her role as employment advisor Carrie Davis

is the kind that in more conventional scripts would be there to learn lessons

on humility, honesty, and bravery from the the young men who are moral almost

to a fault.

Carrie is presented as decidedly

“American,” independent, sarcastic, willfully ignorant (she mistakenly assumes

the refugees are from Somalia, then Senegal), selfish to a fault. She’s the

kind of mess crafted to be “made better” by the noble immigrants. Thankfully,

however, the story is not about her – it stays firmly planted in the journey of

the three brothers, and rather than relying on her to fix their problems, the

narrative empowers them to tackle their biggest obstacles themselves.

And yet, as competently filmed and

acted as this movie is, it often skews dangerously to the side of the maudlin.

Cultural differences are one thing, growing up in extreme hardship is one

thing, but scenes in which the three brothers stare in awe at a flipping

light switch or cower at the sound of a ringing telephone, or struggle to sleep

on a bed get old, quickly. So does the whole, “they’re so happy despite such

awful lives” angle, a simplified, sanitized, and wholly Western point-of-view

in a movie that had the potential to be far more illuminating about the refugee

experience.

“The Good Lie” is carefully

designed to inspire, but not so much to enlighten. It’s one strength lies in

the fact that it actually takes time to focus on the Sudanese actors who play

second fiddle to Witherspoon and Corey Stoll in the film’s marketing materials.

Still, other than some war set pieces, fish-out-of-water montages, and an

uplifting message about the human spirit, there’s not much going on. 

Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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