Trailers for The Good Lie make it appear that a Spunky Nice White Lady (Reese Witherspoon) takes under her wing a group of young Sudanese immigrants who arrive to the U.S. via a humanitarian program, only to have culture clash lead to laughter, tears, and, finally, enlightenment. And all of that happens.
But the film, based on a true story, is also a bit — not much — better than its marketing hook suggests, largely due to fantastic acting and gorgeous visuals. Directed by Philippe Falardeau from a script by Margaret Nagle, The Good Lie kicks off in 1983 Sudan; children frolic as civil war brews. When violence finally reaches the village where Theo, Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital live with their families, the orphaned kids, along with countless others, are forced to walk 800 miles to a refugee camp. Violence and death trail them, cementing their bonds.
The half-hour first act, which carries the kids into adulthood, is the film’s strongest. After 13 years in camp, Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal), and Abital (Kuoth Wiel) are selected to emigrate to America, but Abital is sent to a different part of the country than her brothers. And because 9-11 happens shortly after they arrive, throwing their host program into chaos, reconnection seems impossible.
The Good Lie moves too briskly as assorted traumas (emotional meltdowns; simmering resentments) and triumphs (getting jobs; the act that gives the film its title) are checked off a list without real examination. Despite its weighty material and some moving scenes (much of the Sudanese cast are survivors of the war), this aggressive crowd-pleaser is slighter than its subject matter deserves.