Reese Witherspoon bought the rights to Gone Girl and wanted to star in it until David Fincher convinced her otherwise. While staying on that film as a producer, she headlines another movie that comes out this week, The Good Lie. Actually, her role is closer to a supporting one, but she’s the only actor familiar to Western audiences. It’s admirable that she’s using her stardom to draw people to a film about the Sudanese genocide. I just wish she had a better movie to draw people to.
The prologue takes place in 1987, when northern Sudanese militia members massacre the inhabitants of a village in southern Sudan, leaving the chief’s younger son, Mamere Deng (Peterdeng Momok), in charge of leading a handful of smaller children to a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya. In early 2001, a grown-up Mamere (Arnold Oceng) and fellow villagers Paul and Jeremiah (Emmanuel Jal and Ger Duany) finally leave their camp to resettle in Kansas City, though bureaucratic regulations force Mamere’s sister, Abital (Kuoth Wiel), to be relocated in Boston. The woman in charge of helping the Africans acclimate to America seems to spend most of her time doing something else that the movie never explains, so her work falls to Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), the employment agency counselor tasked with finding jobs for these men.
I’m glad that the filmmakers make an effort not to shape this as the story of a heroic white woman rescuing these Africans. The trouble is, there’s not much shape to this story at all. Director Philippe Falardeau snagged an Oscar nomination for his 2011 French-Canadian drama Monsieur Lazhar, but that movie was essentially small in scale. Here he’s working with a bigger canvas, and it defeats him. His storytelling is astonishingly poor: An immigration official (Victor McCay) warns Carrie that getting Abital to Kansas City will be a nightmare in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but then the problem is solved in the very next scene. The prologue is way too long and could have been dealt with much easier in flashbacks. Jeremiah’s voiceover narration is clumsily handled as well.
Not that the white characters are drawn in novelistic detail, but the Sudanese are reduced to basically one trait each: Mamere is studious, Jeremiah is a devout Christian, and Paul likes to have a good time. The movie seems to sense that the relocation process is a shambles, but only a drunken Paul ever bothers to point this out, and the movie seems uncomfortable with that. Documentaries like 2003’s Lost Boys of Sudan and 2006’s God Grew Tired of Us gave much more detail about the particular challenges these immigrants face.
While most of the Sudanese are portrayed by actual refugees from the war, Oceng is a British actor of Ugandan descent, and he has the most rewarding part here. As Mamere gives up his place in America so that his older brother (Femi Oguns) can escape the war, Oceng seems to grow into a man worthy of being a chief before our eyes. This performance deserved a much better movie than The Good Lie.
The Good Lie
Starring Arnold Oceng and Reese Witherspoon. Directed by Philippe Falardeau. Written by Margaret Nagle. Rated PG-13.