REVIEW BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
Between 1955 to 1972 and then again between 1983 and 2005, Sudan was engulfed in Civil War. The central government in Khartoum battled the rebel forces in the rest of the country. Million died as a result of the confluence of war, famine and disease. Other millions were displaced, in many instances repeatedly. Human rights abuses and slavery became rampant.
“The Good Lie” offers a simplistic treatment of the situation in Sudan. It denies the viewer of any context for understanding the complicated dynamics.
The Sudanese Civil War arose from the historical sectarian tensions between the vast country’s two demographic groups. The north consists of an Arabic-speaking, Muslim population. They have traditionally controlled the government and ruled the sub-Saharan Christians and animists in the rest of the country.
During the British rule of the Sudan in the 19th century, the northern and southern provinces were treated as two separate administrative entities. Then, in 1946, the British government in conjunction with Egypt, adopted a revised approach. The two sections were fused into a single unit and Arabic was declared as its official language.
Even before Sudan was declared an independent country in 1956, a grassroots rebellion ignited in the south. This eventually spread to the country’s inland Nuba mountain and the Blue Nile regions. The Sudanese Liberations People’s Army emerged to spearhead opposition to government control.
In the prologue of “The Good Lie,” a group of young children are innocently playing in rural African village. Suddenly, a helicopter hovers overhead ominously. This is followed by the arrival of gun-toting soldiers. Who are these interlopers and what do they want? Without any discernible provocation, they begin shooting wildly, burning huts, pillaging, and taking prisoners.
Several of the village’s children escape the onslaught. They embark by foot on a 735-mile journey to Kenya. For the next thirteen years, four of them, Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal), and Mamere’s younger sister, Abital (Kuoth Wiel), languish in a refugee camp.
To enable us to identify who the adult versions of the children are, they are still wearing the same T-shirts that they were issued upon arrival in the camp. In other words, they have been wearing the same T-shirts for 13 years, but they’re not reduced to shreds yet. Moreover, these refugees can apparently still wear the same size T-shirt that fit them as children.
For reasons that the film doesn’t deign to clarify, a new program has been implemented, which enables some refugees to immigrate to the United States. Through some quasi-mystical/quasi-random process, the quartet, now grown into young adulthood, are all winners in the lottery to move to America. An evangelical group is sponsoring the African Christian immigrants. As one of the Holy Rollers is fond of exclaiming, “Praise the Lord!”
In a gratuitous plot twist, the three boys are sent to Kansas City, Missouri, while Abital is sent by herself to Boston. As one of the church officials explains, it just wouldn’t be proper to have an unmarried female live in a house with men, even if one of them is her brother. Really — come on!
The church lady, who is assigned to pick up the boys up at the airport, can’t make it. Enter Carrie Davis (Reese Witherspoon) to fill the void. She’s no wholesome girl next door. Indeed, when we first meet her, she is rolling around in motel room bed with some seemingly random guy. Later, she has a meltdown in government office, shrieking, “Who do I have to screw around here to see a goddamn immigration supervisor?” Don’t mistake Carrie for an altruistic do-gooder. She is simply working for an employment agency, which is paid to fill job vacancies. When native born Americans spurn minimum wage manufacturing and retail gigs, African immigrants provide a readily exploitable work force for them.
The screenplay by Margaret Nagle (“Boardwalk Empire”) lacks a decently developed narrative trajectory or character trajectory. It takes delight in mocking the cultural disorientation of these Sudanese immigrants. In one scene, a telephone repeatedly rings. However, they conclude that it must be some sort of an alarm going off and ignore it. Later, when they are presented with a Jello mold, they fail to spontaneously divine that it is an edible item. Nor do they bother asking anyone what it is. As a consequence, it sits on the kitchen counter indefinitely. Ha Ha-how hilarious these primitives are!
This film’s Canadian director, Philippe Falardeau, did a superb job with “Monsieur Lazhar.” That Montreal-set film also involved the immigrant experience. In it, an Algerian man was hired to replace a popular grade school teacher, who had committed suicide in her classroom. That sensitive work deservedly garnered a nomination for the 2012 Best Foreign Film. It was a far cry from the ham-handed minstrelry of “The Good Lie.”
The performance of Reese Witherspoon is also profoundly disappointing. Once upon a time, she turned heads with her portrayal of an ambitious high school student in “Election.” Her subsequent portrayal of June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line” garnered critical accolades as well as an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award. Could this possibly be the same actor, who is so shrill, abrasive, and altogether unappealing in this film?
The 2006 Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary, “God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan,” did an excellent job of detailing the subject. It provides a vastly superior alternative to seeing this meretricious narrative film.
The peoples of the Sudan have endured more than their share of travails. They do not need Hollywood to use their plight as fodder for offensive humor. For both iconographic and dramatic reasons, “The Good Lie” is far from a good film.
* PG-13 (for thematic elements, some violence, brief strong language and drug use) 110 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.