Film Review – The Good Lie
The Good Lie
I was nervous before I saw The Good Lie (2014). Trailers and advertisements had me thinking this was yet another film where a group of helpless minorities/people of color are “saved” by a heroic protagonist – who also happens to be white. This has been an issue in movies for far longer than some care to admit. We see the struggle of minorities through the perspective of the privileged class, which is a mistake because we are forced to empathize with the wrong person. Dances With Wolves (1990), The Last Samurai (2003), and The Help (2011) also suffer from this, and those are just off the top of my head. Thankfully, this is told from the appropriate vantage point. Even though Reese Witherspoon’s face is plastered all over the poster, this isn’t about her.
This is actually about a group of siblings struggling to survive both in their native country and as refugees in the U.S. Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal) and Abital (Kuoth Wiel) are four Sudanese refugees forced to leave their home when war devastates their land and wipes away their people. We first meet them as kids, and witness their long journey – by foot – from their villages towards Ethiopia and into Kenya in search of food and shelter. The first act focuses on their trek and the hardships they faced, as it plays a major part into who they become as adults.
Philippe Falardeau directs a script by Margaret Nagle, and both are aware of the correct approach with this material. We get into the mindset of each of the four kids – especially Mamere and Paul – and their emotional arcs felt authentic. A lot of this is due to the fact that the four actors (Oceng, Duany, Jal, and Wiel) are all real-life Sudanese refugees, who have gone through the actual adversity the film portrays. In the closing credits, we learn that Duany and Jal were both forced to become child-soldiers in their youth, lending an even stronger impact to their performances. They never felt like they were “acting,” the frustration of leaving their home and adjusting to American culture I’m sure was something they had to go through themselves.
Which brings us to a major issue. Once the four are brought to the U.S. (Kansas City to be specific) they go through a lengthy second act filled with fish out of water scenes and other forms of cultural misunderstanding. They didn’t grow up with electricity or running water or grocery stores where food was readily available, so all of this is completely new to them. Sure, having them work for money to afford an apartment takes some getting used to, but where Falardeau and Nagle stumble is playing a lot of these scenes for comedic purposes. When the group asks if there are any lions roaming around, are dumbfounded by the ringing of a telephone, or are taught what ice is, we are clearly meant to laugh. The problem is these scenes are not handled with enough delicacy. Instead of laughing with them we are laughing at them. The second act has a very condescending nature to it, because it is filled to the brim with these types of examples. Having a moment here or there is one thing, but it seems to go on and on. After awhile I stopped seeing it as comedic relief and was close to being offended.
Reese Witherspoon is fine in her performance, but her presence alone acts as a hindrance to the whole narrative. She plays Carrie, a person whose job is to help the kids find and maintain employment. Like mentioned previously, Witherspoon is a supporting character, and her onscreen time is far less than I thought it would be. But because she is a well-known name and is featured in all of the promotional material, she takes the spotlight away from the most important characters. This is a matter of casting. Because Witherspoon is a “movie star,” seeing her creates an imbalance amongst the rest of the actors. This isn’t her fault, but we all know she’s here for the purpose of selling theater tickets.
All these problems aside, The Good Lie works best when we are with Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital. They are their own family, and like a family have to traverse many obstacles. The backgrounds of the actors playing them made me invest in their story. I was most engaged when we broke through their shells to see their vulnerable sides. Very few can understand what they’ve gone through, and despite all the strength and courage they encompass, they have to rely on each other to keep going. They are three brothers and a sister, even though they are not blood related. Their dynamic was almost enough to forgive the film’s shortcomings. Almost.