Anyone who watches trailers online before purchasing movie tickets knows that Hollywood marketing materials are not to be trusted. The only purpose of movie posters, TV spots and trailers is to increase ticket sales, even if that means willfully misrepresenting the content of a particular film. Sample the marketing campaign for Canadian director Philippe Falardeau's The Good Lie and you might identify it as a Reese Witherspoon vehicle in which a beautiful and good-hearted American woman comes to the rescue of helpless Sudanese refugees. That's not exactly the case. The Good Lie wrings a gentle tale from the harshest of sociopolitical circumstances, and it unabashedly targets the broadest audience possible. But it also makes a genuine and convincing case for compassion toward anyone in need of asylum at a time when American politics consistently threaten to derail widely shared values.
The Good Lie's first act starts in southern Sudan during the 1980s, when civil war resulted in more than 20,000 orphaned and displaced children now known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan." The fictional story tracks a small group of kids who undertake a nearly 1,000-mile walk to the safety of a refugee camp in Kenya after their village is destroyed and their parents lost. The story jumps ahead 13 years as the now grown-up Sudanese led by Mamere (Arnold Oceng) are granted asylum in America. Transplanted to Kansas City, Kansas, their lives become enmeshed with those of Carrie (Witherspoon) and Jack (Corey Stoll), who initially were hired to find jobs for the Sudanese. The struggle of the transplanted Sudanese is not only one of adapting to a strange world, but also reuniting with family forcibly separated from them along the way.
Director Falardeau witnessed the horrors of the Second Sudanese Civil War firsthand when he was cinematographer on a documentary about the resulting humanitarian crisis. He sidesteps the white savior pitfall by casting Sudanese actors — many of whom were child refugees or descendants of refugees — in major roles and giving them room to tell their story in a dignified way. The screenplay by Margaret Nagle (HBO's Boardwalk Empire) balances pathos with humor, and makes sure the American characters arrive at some kind of enlightenment. It's not often that an essentially feel-good story is the best way to approach subject matter of this kind, but it's hard to argue with The Good Lie's sincerity and understated message.