“You are chief now, Theo.” Tall as he may be in comparison to the other children now looking up at him, young Theo (Okwar Jale) is hardly prepared for this. Just so, his face reveals a range of responses, just moments after he’s seen his father killed by men with automatic weapons — just a few minutes into The Good Lie. All at once, the boy is sad, horrified, angry, and resentful, but also resolute and righteous. He looks on the other children, all without parents now, victims of the purging conducted by Sudan’s Janjaweed, and nods. And then Theo leads them, carries them, encourages them, walking for hundreds of miles.
Making their way over seemingly endless desert, east to Ethiopia, Jeremiah (played by Thon Kueth as a boy, Ger Duany as an adult) narrates. The children believe, he says, what their elders have instructed, that in Ethiopia they will be “safe.” Within days they find this is not true, as they meet up with another band of young, frightened refugees who’ve been turned away at the border; as a group, they turn south, to Kenya. Though many of the children do make it to Kenya (and more do not), they find that it’s only relatively safe. In the Kakuma refugee camp outside Nairobi, they live meagerly, desperately hoping their names will appear on a list to be transported elsewhere. After 13 years in the camp, Jeremiah and three other survivors from his village — Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Paul (Emmanuel Jal), and Abital (Kuoth Wiel) — learn they are headed to the United States.
Following The Good Lie‘s recounting of the children’s many hardships and traumas, this can only seem like good news. Her smile wide, Abital tells her brother Mamere that at last they will learn the meaning of slogan on the t-shirt he’s worn for 13 years, “Just Do It.” But even as the refugees from Sudan hug and clap and laugh, thrilled at the abstract promise of America, you know they’ll be less “safe” than they’ve been promised.
The troubles they find in Missouri are of a decidedly different sort than what they endure in Sudan and Kenya, a shift in place and tone that the film make clumsily comic and thuddingly melodramatic. Leaving behind brutal violence and living conditions, in Kansas City, everyone the Lost Boys of Sudan meet is well intentioned and white. You see the strangeness of the new world, as the film includes scenes showing the boys negotiating an escalator for the first time, admiring running water, pondering a lacy bra, encountering pizza or hearing jokes (The chicken crossing the road amuses them no end; their laughter is entirely charming and welcome, given how much suffering you’ve seen them endure).
But the film has trouble setting the boys’ experience alongside those of would-be benefactors, beginning with their feisty job placement supervisor, Carrie (Reese Witherspoon) and her boss, Jack (Corey Stoll), alternately bemused and startled by their charges’ experience. Somehow, she can’t anticipate that the boys haven’t seen or heard a phone before, or that bunk beds don’t accommodate their long bodies, or that they’ve been traumatized. Indeed, when Carrie finally takes to Google to discover what happened in Sudan, her eyes go wide at the photos of starving children and bloody corpses.
Carrie’s edification serves a narrative and emotional purpose, aligning us with her journey. It also situates her ignorance as of a different sort from that of other, less nurturing figures in the States, people who take advantage or resist change, who offer green jello rings or pot, who expect Mamere or Paul to forget their traumas and just assimilate already. She takes up their cause with a committed do-gooder’s vengeance, and while you might appreciate it, you also understand she’s a remarkably multi-purpose device, helping them reunite with Abital (separated from the boys by bureaucratic inanities), drinking heartily with the not-so-clueless after all Christian lady (Sarah Baker), even bringing a bald, round cliché of an immigration officer (Victor McKay) into her expanding circle of committed do-gooders.
For all Carrie’s emphatic energies and for all the insistent tensions and admirable loyalties among the Lost Boys, The Good Lie remains caught up in a peculiar dynamic, a dynamic where white people’s ignorance leads to revelation, if not for those white people, then for viewers. “In America,” Paul observes, “we are nothing.” They’re not chiefs or even recognized as being related to one another, not respected or engaged as equals. They only work, pay for their plane tickets, and exist.
That existence is at once reduced to a series of episodes and also transcends what the film can show. Asked what brings him to the United States by a prospective employer at the waffle House, Jeremiah says, “My parents were killed in a civil war and my sisters were taken as slaves.” When Paul’s new buddies at work wonder how he got a fierce scar on his arm, he explains that it was a lion, and moreover, that he was unable to save his brother from being eaten by that lion. Both times, the white folks look blankly at the Sudanese men, unable to comprehend their experiences certainly, but more to the point, unable to empathize beyond a weak smile.
Only Jack, a US combat veteran, appears even to make the effort to comfort Mamere, still hearing the sounds of guns and crying children in his dreams, still feeling guilty for surviving when so many others did not. It’s a poignant moment preceded by all kinds of melodramatic trappings, from fisticuffs and confessions to tears and embraces all around, yet it also suggests the ongoing difficulty of sharing grief and anger and remorse.
As such, it’s a moment that makes much of The Good Lie look overbearing and trite, both too eager to explain and too content with its explanations. This is what’s most frustrating about The Good Lie. You know it means well.