“I want to live, I do not want to die,” chant the young victims of Sudan’s civil war as they trek hundreds of miles east toward Ethiopia, then south toward Kenya—any place where their frail bodies won’t be shredded by the Janjaweed’s undiscriminating gunfire. The Good Lie, the new film by Monsieur Lazhar director Philippe Falardeau, contemplates the perseverance of these orphans, so cruelly plagued by hunger, thirst, and the memories of their dearly departed, with a specificity and clarity that’s edifying. The refugees, pilgrims seemingly following in Moses’s footsteps (young Jeremiah even carries a copy of the Holy Bible close to him at all times), use sticks to scare away cheetahs from a dead gazelle, suck water from the ground with a makeshift straw, and after joining a much larger group of exiles headed toward Kenya, cross a river hauntingly dotted with corpses so as to avoid the encroaching rebels. The film’s honeyed artistry may not sear the imagination like the phantasmagoria of Elem Klimov’s Come and See, yet Falardeau’s invitation to witness the horrors that have afflicted the Sudanese since the war ripped apart their homeland isn’t beholden to bogus uplift.
That will surely come as a surprise to anyone made wary by the film’s marketing campaign, namely the risible poster—of Reese Witherspoon’s angelic mug dominant above a postcard-pretty scene of three orphans marching toward a solitary acacia tree—that would seem to promise a spectacle of do-gooder sentimentality and cliché. But the truth is that Witherspoon’s Carrie, a rep at a Kansas City employment agency, is a bystander to the struggles of assimilation faced by Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), and Paul (Emmanuel Jal) upon their arrival in Missouri. The film, a la Million Dollar Arm, gets cute with its depiction of culture clash, inviting our laughter at the Sudanese trio’s misassumptions about American life, but it’s careful not to present Carrie’s complexes as those of a paternalistic white savior. Indeed, her only crisis of consciousness—cleaning up her unkempt house—barely registers as one at all. When Carrie makes room inside her house for Mamere’s sister, Abital (Kuoth Wiel), there isn’t a sense that she’s seriously taken to heart Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul’s naïve comments about her needing to find a husband; she’s motivated only by empathy, and her kindness is such that it doesn’t cravenly want for congratulation.
The Good Lie isn’t without its false or predictable notes. Because the roots of Jeremiah’s devotion to Christianity are never articulated, it can feel as if he’s blindly advancing evangelical enterprise. And though Oceng justifies a blatant college-classroom discourse on the film’s title—a reference to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—by richly connecting its meaning to his character’s personal experience, the point is overstated once Mamere returns to Africa in search of the brother he thought was dead for more than decade. But the film always hums with a sensitivity toward cultural rites and feelings of estrangement and loss that remains rousing. It’s in the tears a stoned Paul sheds for the brother he lost to a lion and in the ritual of placing hands on top of each other in remembrance of a family bloodline. And it’s in the provocative expression of desire and displacement embodied by the soundtrack (the sounds of the West are dominant during the African-set scenes, and the music of Africa is prime once the Sudanese arrive in America), as well as in Jeremiah’s gentle refusal to allow his sense of honor to become incompatible with his striving for the American dream. This is a Hollywood-delivered chronicle of the immigrant experience that earns its justification through good will and tact.