It’s not often that an actor who is arguably the fourth lead in a film gets top billing, an unfortunate but necessary marketing tactic for The Good Lie (2014), which uses Reese Witherspoon‘s face prominently in all advertising despite not being the star. The English language debut of director Philippe Falardeau – Monsieur Lazhar (2011) – tells the story of four Sudanese refugees (known as the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’), forced to walk hundreds of miles to escape war in their country and find a new life in America. Foreign conflict, particularly in Africa, has always been met with patchy portrayals by Hollywood studios. All too often underdeveloped African characters simply wait for a Hollywood actor to come in and save the day.
There is no denying that the film is a stylised, gentler story than it might have been, unfolding in a series of uplifting moments that producer Ron Howard made his name on as a director. But however polished the portrayal, the film doesn’t shy away from hardship, or recognising who the real stars of the film are. The courage of the children is rightly put front-and-centre, with Falardeau eschewing any temptation to make this a story of White America coming to the rescue (it is 35 minutes before Witherspoon even appears). The younger actors’ trek through the Sudan early on is the moving heart of the film – the children’s hardened will to survive becoming a powerful way of drawing the viewer in. If the younger actors provide the grit, Arnold Odeng and the actors who portray the adult refugees give the film charm.
Their introduction into America life causes many humorous culture clash moments (finding simple jokes hilarious, marvelling that Witherspoon’s character is unmarried), an obvious choice perhaps but one that doesn’t feel as derivative as it might have. Their wide eyed innocence is met with Witherspoon’s American brashness. A tough, no nonsense woman unafraid to speak her mind, to her credit the performance never overwhelms or takes away from her co-stars and she bonds with the refugees (especially Odeng) in a believable way. Still, her presence underlines the studio’s need for a recognisable name to be present, underlining the disappointing notion that this story on its own is not enough to draw audiences in. The Good Lie is throughout a very studio manicured take on events that were almost certainly far more harrowing in real life. Nevertheless, the central performances underline just what these people have been through, and create something more than the questionable themes extolled in films such as The Blind Side (2011). A Hollywood-centric but still powerfully human story about family and the struggles many go through simply to exist.
James Luxford | @JLFilm