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The most frustrating thing about The Good Lie (rated PG-13 for war violence and language) is that it is quite a good movie. Quite good enough, that is—earnest, full of heart, and frequently funny—to be worth the price of admission and a couple hours of Saturday night date time. But within it you can see the misty outline of the great movie it could have been if only the producers had possessed the courage (or possibly the studio backing) to forgo the lure of an A-list headliner.
It opens in 1987 with a group of Sudanese children who are forced to flee their village after Islamic soldiers murder their Christian parents. From there they travel more than 1,000 miles on foot with nothing but a Bible, a piece of glass, a pot, and the rags on their backs until they finally arrive at a Kenyan refugee camp where they join about 35,000 other displaced, orphaned children from Sudan’s second civil war in becoming known as Lost Boys. Thirteen years later the now-adult siblings win the immigration lottery and gain visas to enter the United States.
It is at this point that Reese Witherspoon enters the picture as Carrie Davis, a promiscuous, possibly alcoholic employment officer tasked with finding the boys entry-level work. She does a fine job, and their first few scenes crackle with energy and fish-out-of-water hilarity. The contrast between Carrie’s lack of community and connection and the brothers’ bonds of faith and family also adds a nice grace note to the narrative.
But as the story plays on, what should have been a small, incidental role is inflated to pointless proportions in order to give Witherspoon something to do. Enormous opportunities to make the film more authentic by further exploring the specifics of the immigrants’ experience are squandered. For example, at the end of the film we see Jeremiah (real-life Lost Boy Ger Duany) preach a message to a rapt congregation at a local church. How did Jeremiah come to be a part of this church? What were the congregants’ initial reactions to him? Does he find true fellowship in a body of believers so outwardly different from him? Screenwriter Margaret Nagle and director Philippe Falardeau either aren’t interested in these questions or it never even occurred to them to ask.
We likewise get no more detail out of Mamere’s (Arnold Oceng) educational ambitions beyond a single (and overly convenient as it provides the film’s title) exchange with a night school teacher. These latter scenes feel so clichéd and rushed, they do a glaring disservice to the heartbreaking specificity we witnessed earlier in Africa. Even worse, they make one character’s final great sacrifice feel like a tacked-on afterthought, as we haven’t spent enough time looking through his eyes to fully appreciate what he’s giving up.
“I was talking to Rick Warren,” Witherspoon commented during a press conference for the film, “and he said sometimes we assume that if people are poor they’re not intelligent or they don’t have anything to offer to society. … It’s been really amazing through this process to meet all these wonderful men and women from the Sudan who are doing all these incredible things in America.”
While I understand the industry realities that made Alcon Entertainment believe it needed her star power, I agree with Witherspoon. I wish the studio could have trusted these incredible stories to reach audiences without her help.
NASHVILLE—There are at least a quarter of a billion reasons for the producers of the new drama The Good Lie to want to replicate the marketing formula they used with their 2009 sleeper hit The Blind Side.
That fall, driven primarily by word of mouth, the movie that told the mostly true story of Tennessee Titans lineman Michael Oher grossed $256 million, and its star, Sandra Bullock, won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as the real-life Leigh Anne Tuohy.
What the masses who made The Blind Side the highest-grossing sports drama of all time may have missed, however, was that it was far from loved in media circles where it received strident criticism for its treatment of racial issues. With a fairly dismal 48 percent positive score from top critics at the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, the movie was pelted with charges like that from the Village Voice that it “[peddled] the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of African-Americans who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them.”
This kind of criticism left Alcon Entertainment a difficult needle to thread in marketing The Good Lie. By heavily showcasing another Hollywood sweetheart—Reese Witherspoon—the movie’s trailer and promotional material make it clear that the studio is hoping to appeal to the same audiences that flocked to see Sandra Bullock. Yet The Good Lie could prove even more susceptible to complaints of racial condescension because Witherspoon isn’t playing a real individual as Bullock was, and her role isn’t particularly integral to the story of the Sudanese refugees.
All of which led to a somewhat surreal red carpet event at the film’s premiere in Nashville on Sept. 19. Amongst enormous posters where her lovely face was the most prominent feature, Witherspoon took the stage alongside Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to remind the reporters that the focus of The Good Lie is not on her character but rather on the Lost Boys of Sudan.
“The first thing the director [Philippe Falardeau] said to me is this movie is not about you,” Witherspoon reiterated at a press conference at the Vanderbilt Loews the following day. “It made me happy because I didn’t want to make a movie that was just a white girl coming to save African people.”
Her co-star Corey Stoll (House of Cards, The Strain) later echoed her comments, saying, “There is a problem in Hollywood with making stories about the white savior coming in and this was so not that movie. [Screenwriter] Margaret [Nagle] was so courageous with the story in that we don’t come to America for 30 to 35 minutes.”
Ger Duany, one of the former Sudanese refugees who stars in the film, was the only cast member who hinted at the disconnect between the film’s general advertising campaign and what seemed to be coordinated talking points tailored to head off media criticism. “You couldn’t find a better person [than Witherspoon] to really tell the story of South Sudanese people who’ve been suffering for decades. Because Reese was someone who could help us get this story to you.” —M.B.