DIFF 2014 review: The Good Lie

Reese Witherspoon stars in a story about the Lost Boys, young Sudanese refugees starting a new life in the United States, but its the former refugees who star in the film who steal the show.
Ger Duany, from left, Arnold Oceng and Emmanuel Jal appear in a scene from The Good Lie. AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Bob Mahoney
Ger Duany, from left, Arnold Oceng and Emmanuel Jal appear in a scene from The Good Lie. AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Bob Mahoney

The Good Lie opens with a pretty clear statement of intent. The film has barely begun when the South Sudanese home village of our protagonists is strafed by helicopters of the North Sudanese army and burnt to the ground, leaving a tiny band of orphaned children to make the long walk to Ethiopia, then ultimately Kenya after they are block by further North Sudanese troops along the way.

These were the so called “Lost Boys” of the 22-year Sudanese Civil War, thousands of orphaned children who trekked up to 1,000 miles over harsh African terrain when the war began in 1983 to eventually find relative security in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. In the case of our four surviving protagonists, 15 years later they are some of around 3,600 Sudanese children and young adults (their own camp alone housed around 100,000 refugees) to be granted asylum in the United States.

There’s a marked change of tone once they land Stateside. The film’s opening act is frankly brutal. As if the genocide wasn’t bad enough, we see children die of dehydration, exhaustion and further encounters with the military as they seek safety, and we look set to be on for a pretty harrowing 112 minutes.

Once our heroes arrive in Kansas City, however, the film does a virtual about-flip into a fish-out-of-water, culture clash comedy as the young men from a remote African village struggle to come to terms with their new American life.

They still have problems, for sure – the Deng family is split up when sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel) is whisked off to Boston on arrival, as the charity supporting the relocation programme decrees that female refugees must be placed with an adoptive family; Paul (Emmanual Jal) falls out with his new boss while Mamere (Arnold Oceng) works two jobs to fund his dream of medical school, and is haunted by his sense of guilt over the death of their older brother Theo, back in Sudan. All this is pretty inconsequential following what we’ve already seen them go through, though.

This could jar horribly, and it was certainly noted as I sat in the cinema, but luckily the leads have enough charm to carry it off. Plus, three of the four lead actors playing refugees are themselves children of the Sudanese civil war. Jal and his filmic brother Jeremiah (Ger Duany) were both forcefully recruited as child soldiers before escaping to safety, while Wiel was born in an Ethiopian refugee camp. If they’re happy with the switch in tone, I’ll try and let it ride too.

Of course, the big marketing tool of the movie is Reese Witherspoon. She’s having a stellar year, with Oscar nods for Wild (also screening at DIFF) and a production credit for Gone Girl to add to this critically acclaimed film. In fairness though, she’s a supporting actress as their recruitment advisor here. All the credit has to go to not only the grown-up Dengs, but the children who portray their fleeing 1983 versions, many of whom are themselves the offspring of Lost Boys.

It’s a rare film that in the space of less than two hours has you dumbstruck at the sheer inhumanity of our species, then laughing at culture clash bloopers that wouldn’t be out of place in Crocodile Dundee II. I’m still fighting the urge to call that insensitive, so go along and make your own mind up.

*The Good Lie screens at Madinat Theatre, 9pm, Saturday 13 December; MoE 7, 2.45pm, Monday 15 Dec, and goes on general UAE release on Thursday December 18.

Published: December 11, 2014 04:00 AM

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