I feel like a churl for voicing qualms about The Good Lie, a big, eager puppy of an issue movie that plants its paws on your chest and licks away at your cheek in eager expectation of praise. The story it tells, about a group of Sudanese refugees who, after a grinding journey to escape endless civil war at home, find refuge in Kansas, can't help but grab our sympathies. But this fact-based movie smothers an epic humanitarian crisis in a gooey parable of American largesse administered by Reese Witherspoon, serious brunette.
Witherspoon is always a pleasure, and she's no scene-stealer as the flighty Carrie Davis, a settlement worker who discovers her own sense of purpose helping a depleted band of traumatized refugees to adjust to a life of relative plenty and safety. The Good Lie would likely never have gotten off the ground without her, and to its credit the movie strives to take the point of view of the cobbled-together family of migrants, some of them (including the extraordinarily striking Ger Duany, who had a small role in David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees) played by former lost boys.
But when it comes to social issue pictures, especially those having to do with that mysterious place Abroad where people are Not Like Us, Hollywood studios lose all faith in moviegoers' intelligence, curiosity and ability to tolerate politics, catastrophe or emotional complexity. Which may be one reason why this fastidiously PG-13 movie doesn't linger long in South Sudan, where we meet our small group of shell-shocked, newly orphaned boys (and one girl, who's banished soon after for much of the duration) fleeing from their villages after a random attack by soldiers from the north in 1983. Their fruitless journey on foot to seek refuge in Ethiopia and a 13-year sojourn in a Kenyan refugee camp are polished off in barely half an hour, during which we hear ("War is all around us") more than we see of the appalling physical dangers they face at every moment.
Cut to Kansas, where the now-adult refugees turn into amiable, resourceful brothers from another planet as they trudge patiently through acculturation rites meant to warm the heart and tickle the funny bone on cue. What is McDonald's? Two thumbs up for pizza! Americans tell these weird stories called jokes! Why doesn't Carrie have a husband to take care of her? One of them goes slightly off the rails, only to be reeled back in by his faithful friends, with Carrie pulling strings from the rear.
As for their hosts, mainly they're a collection of bemused, amused, then affectionate reaction shots. Not one of them seems to register or react to their guests' color. The improbability of this in a mostly white, conservative community begs for narrative attention, but it never comes. How likely is it that an influx of black strangers with radically different customs and mores would not bring out a rash of xenophobia among the locals at best, and racism at worst? For that matter, how likely is it that the migrants, traumatized and many of them horribly brutalized as child soldiers, would grow up into saints?
It's hard to imagine a more awkward fit for such reductive moviemaking than French-Canadian director Philipe Falardeau. Perhaps he was hired on the strength of his 2011 Monsieur Lazhar, a fine, miniaturist film about an Algerian immigrant teacher in Canada. Maybe he suffered meddling from above, or perhaps big-budget moviemaking threw this talented indie filmmaker for a loop. As in Monsieur Lazhar, the best scenes in The Good Lie are those in which Falardeau observes how learning new work skills can anchor new immigrants in a strange world. But he's a half-hearted director at best of crucial action scenes in Africa. And it doesn't help that he's working with Margaret Nagle's fatally expository script, which comes perilously close to reducing the immigrants to holy fools, and their hosts to paragons of hospitality whose only failing is temporary cultural incomprehension.
I don't mean that cynically. Until Sept. 11, there really was a great program to resettle thousands of Sudanese refugees in cities around America. The closest thing to real conflict in The Good Lie is the crippling blow dealt the program by post-Sept. 11 security rules. There's no doubt that some dedicated Americans worked hard to get around those rules to help acclimate the refugees. But it was never smooth sailing, nor is it today. That is the necessary place where this good-hearted simpleton of a movie dares not go.