Movies about cooperating Africans and Americans often take a condescending risk of great white saviors making everything better for poor black folks. The Good Lie isn't that sort of movie, except in its marketing.
Trailers and posters for The Good Lie are dominated by the plucky presence of Reese Witherspoon, who doesn't show up for nearly 40 minutes and isn't needed then. She's a white savior of another sort, a mainstream audience draw for a movie that wouldn't be helped by more truthful advertising.
The Good Lie is inspired by the hardships endured by Sudanese refugees, mostly children, of a bloody civil war in the 1980s. Their trek for hundreds of miles through natural and man-made cruelty and the immigration of thousands to the United States has been the subject of several "lost boys of Sudan" documentaries. This is the fictionalized "inspired by" version that isn't necessary except moviegoers don't buy many tickets for documentaries. That's where Reese comes in, and not as often as her fans wish.
Director Philippe Falardeau gets more dramatic mileage from unknowns, former Sudan refugees themselves, lending an authenticity that shouldn't be undercut by movie star intrusion. Tops among these are Arnold Oceng as Mamere, the young, de facto chief for his orphaned siblings as they navigate U.S. civilization, and Emmanuel Jal as his wayward honorary "brother."
Falardeau does a fine job conveying their dangers and frustrations while making the Sudan culture less foreign, thanks in part to Ronald Plante's first-hour cinematography and Martin Leon's music throughout. His movie challenges with subtitles and foreign affairs that don't easily sell in the United States. Several viewers at a screening left early and disappointed.
The Good Lie — the title is a Mark Twain reference — falters only when white people get too involved. Witherspoon's no-guff employment agent, assigned to find jobs for the immigrants, is basically a variation on Sandra Bullock's true-life white savior in The Blind Side, although too perfectly packaged to be true. This isn't her movie and shouldn't be. Selling anything else is a bad lie.
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.