Is it always a sin to tell a lie? Even to save your own life—or that of a loved one?
Could there be such a thing as “a good lie”?
These are questions worth considering when watching The Good Lie, which tells the story of a handful of Sudanese refugees—better known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan”—and their incredible journey . . . first to escape war in their native country, and then to adjust to their new homes and lives as they resettle in the United States.
The main characters in this moving film are fictional, but the story behind them is harrowingly true. Sudan’s Second Civil War, from 1983-2005, left more than 2 million people dead—and 100,000 orphans. Many of those children ultimately found sanctuary in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, and in 2000, about 4,000 of these “lost boys” relocated to the U.S. as part of a program to give them an opportunity to start anew.
The Good Lie focuses primarily on five of these refugees, beginning when they’re young children. Brothers Theo and Mamere and their younger sister Abital are orphaned when soldiers attack their village, killing most of the adults. On their perilous flight to safety, they join up with brothers Jeremiah and Paul, orphans fleeing from another village.
One morning, the five youngsters are sleeping in tall grasses when Theo, the oldest, wakes first—and is spotted by soldiers. Theo raises his arms and surrenders, telling the soldiers he is alone. They take him prisoner while the other four remain safely hidden.
Was Theo’s deception the good lie of the film’s title? You decide.
The four remaining children finally make it to Kakuma, joining tens of thousands of other refugees. The film then fast-forwards 13 years, when all four of them get the call to board a plane for America.
When they land at JFK, they learn that the three boys—Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul—will go to Kansas City to begin again on their own, and that the girl, Mamere’s sister Abital, will join a family in Boston. Apparently protocol dictated that males could set out on their own, but that females had to be taken in by a foster family. After tearful goodbyes, they go their separate ways, with the guys vowing to reunite with Abital at their first opportunity.
From there, the film mostly follows the young men to Kansas City, where they are met at the airport by Carrie Davis (Reese Witherspoon), a harried social worker whose gig is to help the newcomers find jobs. The middle third of the film explores the difficult cultural transition for the young men, some of it played for laughs. For example, when they visit a cow farm, one of the refugees asks if there are any lions in the vicinity. Ha ha. Only later do we learn why that question was especially important to one of the young men.
Carrie is an independent woman with an obvious chip on her shoulder. She dutifully does her job—helping the young men find employment—but without much compassion or emotional investment. Initially, she is clueless, even insensitive, about their plight; she simply drops them off at the curb of their apartment building on their first day in America. They don’t know how to find their unit, how to use a key, how to turn on a light, how to use the stove, how to open the fridge, how to use the phone . . . anything.
Predictably, as time goes by, Carrie warms up to these young men, and they become friends. She then makes it her mission to help them reunite with Abital, and it’s not hard to guess where the story goes from there.
But what was impossible to guess was a twist involving someone back in Kenya at the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Suffice it to say that this development sets up a touching finale involving yet another “good lie,” one that will likely have you reaching for the tissues.
Sudan’s Second Civil War, which resulted in these “lost boys,” was triggered in part by some of the same issues plaguing the world today. Sudan’s Muslim government sought to impose sharia law on non-Muslim southerners, many of whom were Christians. And if that meant essentially an ethnoreligious genocide, so be it. Two million dead bodies were evidence enough.
Significantly, the three young men at the heart of the film—Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul—are portrayed as Christians. We see them reading Scripture, praying, singing hymns, and going to church, but never does the faith element feel forced; this is not a “message movie” with an agenda. Faith is a natural, organic part of their tale, as much a part of their daily lives as eating, sleeping, and going to work.
More significantly, the main characters are portrayed by men who, in real life, have a direct connection to the story, bringing extra gravitas to the film. Ger Duany (Jeremiah) and Emmanuel Jal (Paul) actually were “lost boys” who were forced to become child soldiers, enduring brutal treatment at a young age. (Jal, a rap musician now living in Toronto, told his story in an autobiography called War Child, later adapted into a powerful documentary of the same name.)
Arnold Oceng (Mamere) was born to a Sudanese father and a Ugandan mother, who fled the war zone with 2-year-old Arnold after his father died. Kuoth Wiel (Abital) lost her father, a doctor, to the war when she was five; one of her brothers was one of the real “lost boys” who emigrated to the U.S.
Director Philippe Falardeau had worked on a documentary about Sudan’s war in the 1990s. Twice he was caught in the crossfire and evacuated by the UN, and he has since been wracked by guilt for “leaving people behind who would probably die. I had this feeling that I had abandoned them.”
When Falardeau read Margaret Nagle’s script for The Good Lie, he decided he had to direct the film—and pitched himself accordingly to the producers. They hired him on the spot.
Falardeau decided to cast the film mostly with displaced Sudanese people, because “they hold this story in their hearts. For them, it’s not about being in a movie. It’s about bringing their story to the world.”
In The Good Lie, it’s a compelling story, entertaining, informing, and told quite well.
Whether the movie’s “good lies” are acceptable (or not) is up to you to decide. There are no easy answers . . . and that’s the good truth.
The Good Lie is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence, brief strong language and drug use. Early in the film, an African village is attacked by helicopters and soldiers, and people—including children—are killed, though none onscreen. Many dead bodies are seen, including bodies floating down a river. Obscene language is minimal, but strong. A few characters smoke pot and get high. The film raises important questions about America’s—and the rest of the world’s—responsibilities toward refugees and displaced persons, and how they can best be helped. There are also moral and ethical questions, including what constitutes a “good lie,” as the title implies. Good discussion fodder with few easy answers.
Mark Moring is a CT Editor at Large and a writer at Grizzard Communications in Atlanta.
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