By Preston Wilder
Has there ever been a film more appropriately named? The Good Lie is good, very good indeed, if by ‘good’ we mean virtuous, respectful, full of good intentions. It’s about Sudanese war refugees – and all the African actors are real-life war refugees, sons of war refugees or former child soldiers. It ends, inevitably, with a website where you can donate to a fund to help Sudanese war refugees. It’s well-meaning, charitable, eager to do good. It’s also a lie – fake, contrived and synthetic from beginning to end.
The opening caption explains what will happen in detail: a war in southern Sudan in 1983 displaced thousands of people, many of whom were forced to walk hundreds of miles to the relative safety of Kenya. We then get a 20-minute prologue illustrating what the caption just said, following a group of young kids including Mamere, Paul and Jeremiah (played as adults by Arnold Oceng, Emmanuel Jal and Ger Duany) who go on a long, arduous trek after soldiers burn down their village and murder their parents. You might think it’s superfluous to include both the caption and the prologue, but in fact it makes sense – because knowing in advance what’s going to happen, that the kids will slowly walk to safety, means we can wallow in the horrors of their journey, shaking our heads as they witness massacres and drink their own pee in order to stay alive.
That’s the idea, getting Western audiences to wallow in horror and shake their heads (and hopefully feel a bit guilty at having so much while those poor Third World people live in misery). Reese Witherspoon adds her lustre to the project, subscribing to the theory that celebrities can do good in the world just by starring in films that aim to do good (another ‘good lie’) – though in fact she doesn’t have a very big role, certainly much less central than Sandra Bullock in the superficially similar The Blind Side. The real protagonists are the three Sudanese men (and Mamere’s sister Abital, played by Kuoth Wiel), coming to America as part of a resettlement program that was sadly cut short by 9/11.
They’re a strange trio, these “lost boys of Sudan”. Mamere is smart and very articulate – “I want to speak to another official,” he says at the airport when Abital gets placed in the wrong city – but also thinks “Why did the chicken cross the road?” is the funniest thing ever (listen to this, it’s called “a joke”, he tells the others; don’t they have jokes in Sudan?). “Are there any dangerous animals of which we should be warned?” asks Paul, having learned perfect English without having learned that there aren’t any lions in America. They’ve spent 13 years in a UN refugee camp yet have never used straws or heard of telephones, and generally behave like they’ve just come out of the savannah. “Where is your village?” they ask bewildered Reese, and later call her “Great White Cow” as a mark of respect.
In short, these are not real people. These are constructs, idealised Africans that’ll lull an American audience into slightly condescending sympathy (and hopefully make them donate later). They’re more noble than us spoiled Westerners, shocked at the sight of a supermarket throwing away “old food”, pointing out that smiling for no reason is “insincere”. They’re more pure and innocent; none of the guys gets a girlfriend during their time in America, nor do they even think about girls. They’re like aliens, or robots, or Time-travelled Hugh Jackman in Kate and Leopold, or Chance the gardener in Being There, amazing everyone with their charming naivety and childlike wisdom.
The Good Lie is absolutely shameless – yet it’s also, after all, in a Good Cause. In our post-9/11 world, with mounting suspicion on all sides and the West too swamped or impotent to help the millions uprooted by atrocities (Islamic State being the latest culprit), it’s hard not to feel for the ‘lost boys’ – that childhood prologue recurs in frequent flashbacks – and downright poignant to see small-town America taking them in without fear of terrorism. “Our common humanity unites us,” preaches Jeremiah at the end (all three are devout, the Holy Bible taking something of a co-starring role) and you feel a little surge of emotion, though admittedly the same story with Muslim refugees would’ve been a lot more impressive. One can even forgive the crowd-pleasing moments, like the guys praying over “that miracle food, pizza”, or the early bit in the refugee camp when Abital looks at Mamere’s T-shirt, emblazoned with Nike’s ‘JUST DO IT’, and says that in America – land of opportunity – “we can finally find out what this means”. That’s another good lie.
DIRECTED BY Philippe Falardeau
STARRING Reese Witherspoon, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany
Includes some dialogue in Sudanese, with Greek subtitles.
US 2014 110 mins