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Review: ‘The Good Lie’ tells a real story of those left behind


Sudanese refugees in Kansas City, Mo., celebrate their birthday in “The Good Lie.” Since many of the refugees didn’t know their actual day of birth, the U.S. assigned them Jan. 1 because “there will always be a party” one immigration worker says in the film. (ALCON ENTERTAINMENT)

I didn’t see the new version of “Left Behind” this weekend, but it looks like a few people did. The film brought in about $6.8 million, according to RottenTomatoes.com. Critics gave the film a 2 percent approval rating (which I didn’t think was possible). Audiences were much kinder at 69 percent.

The movie I did see, “The Good Lie,” brought in less than $1 million this weekend, though the reviews generally are stellar. (The Rotten Tomatoes critics rating is 84 percent.) It’s a fictionalized account based on the real-life struggles of refugees from the terrible conflict in Sudan as they adjust to life in the U.S.

Everyone should see it.

I was blessed to visit Sudan in 2011, a few months before South Sudan became an independent nation. (We featured the rapid growth of churches there in our “Global South” series.) The filmmakers did a great job of getting the look of East Africa right. The round, thatched-roof houses, which we called “tuckles” or “tookles,” are there. The East African sunsets are amazing. 

The film opens by following a small group of children as they flee the war in their village and head east toward Ethiopia — only to be forced to turn south toward Kenya, eventually arriving at the Kakuma refugee camp after walking more than 700 miles. Their suffering — their thirst — is real.

The children become adults in the camp, eventually getting permission to move to the U.S., where they must find jobs and repay their airfare. They’ve never driven a car or used a phone. Three of them arrive in Kansas City, Mo., where an employment agent, Carrie (played by Reese Witherspoon), meets them. She asks them if they have their luggage, and they hold up simple, white bags bearing the letters IOM — International Organization for Migration. (One Christmas Eve, I saw these same bags in a Chicago airport, carried by refugees from Myanmar. I’ll share that story another time. It was another great detail.)

Sudanese refugees show their “luggage” to Carrie (Reese Witherspoon) in “The Good Lie.” (PHOTO BY BOB MAHONEY, ALCON ENTERTAINMENT)

The sometimes-slow pace of the movie augments the refugees’ sense of isolation in a strange, new world. Several of the scenes are taken directly from the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us,” (which I also recommend). We see Jeremiah (played by former South Sudanese child soldier Ger Duany) put Ritz crackers into a thermos, pour in milk and crush the concoction with a hammer. Breakfast.

There’s heart, compassion and faith in this film. The children cross the Sudanese wilderness clutching a Bible, talking about Moses and the Exodus. Powerful. Working at a grocery store in Kansas City, Jeremiah and Mamere (played by Ugandan actor Arnold Oceng) are appalled when their boss asks them to take expired food and throw it in a dumpster. 

The film deals with the post-traumatic stress the Sudanese feel as they remember those who really are left behind — the refugees who didn’t get permission to come to America and those who died before reaching the camp. One of the refugees, Paul (Emmanuel Jal) indulges in marijuana to fight the pain, leading to an emotional confrontation with Mamere.

As employment agents Carrie and Jack (Corey Stoll) try to understand the refugees’ lives, we get a glimpse into Carrie’s life — which is kind of a mess. Witherspoon does a good job with the limited screen time she’s given. I expected her to have a more Sandra Bullock-esque role (think “The Blind Side“) but she’s really a minor character in the film. She undergoes no great transformation. 

Still, Witherspoon delivers one of the most poignant scenes in the film during a quiet conversation with Sudanese refugee Abital (Kuoth Wiel) in which Carrie reveals that she lost a sister to cancer. Abital responds with something to the effect of, “And you wonder why it was her and not you?” Survivor’s guilt isn’t limited to victims of war.

The title, a reference to Mark Twain’s character Huckleberry Finn, plays out in an incredible, self-sacrificial act that closes the film. This movie preaches.

It may not win any Oscars — and it may not be in theaters for long — but I urge you to see this film if you have the chance. For those of us who know Sudanese refugees living here in the U.S., the film is a powerful reminder of their struggles.

Unfortunately, the film evokes a sense of profound sadness due to the recent wave of ethnically charged conflicts in South Sudan. A people once united against a common foe have turned on each other. 

I pray that the decades-long cycle of violence will end.

Carrie (Reese Witherspoon) and Jack (Corey Stoll) listen to Jeremiah (Ger Duany) deliver a sermon in “The Good Lie.” (PHOTO BY BOB MAHONEY, ALCON ENTERTAINMENT)


“The Good Lie”  is   rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence, brief strong language and drug use. See Movieguide.org’s review.

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