Genocide, kidnapping, wild-animal attacks: Such unimaginable ordeals were commonplace for the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, refugees who fled a civil war for relief camps in neighboring countries around the turn of this century. The luckiest of the Lost Boys — about 4,000 of them — were allowed to emigrate to the United States. They settled in strange places like St. Louis, Omaha and Fargo, where faith groups helped them transition to their new lives.
Thankfully, “The Good Lie” is not another movie in which white do-gooders overshadow the people of color. Most of the movie takes place in Africa, before a trio of refugees journey to Kansas City.
When his older brother is conscripted by rebels, Mamere (played as an adult by Arnold Oceng) becomes the de facto chief of a traveling tribe that includes sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel). Among the boys who join their caravan are pious Jeremiah (Ger Duany) and feisty Paul (Emmanuel Jal).
Evading gunmen and crocodiles, some of the boys reach a refugee camp in Kenya. In the years while they wait for their names to be posted on the lottery list, Mamere teaches himself medicine.
When a new list is posted, the three boys are bound for Kansas City. But the only sponsor who will accept Abital is in Boston.
“The Good Lie” is fiction based on actual events, but as in the fine documentary “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” many of the fish-out-of-water situations are played for gentle laughs, which relieve the pressure of the dramatic prelude.
In K.C. (it’s actually Atlanta), employment coordinator Carrie (Reese Witherspoon) becomes the boys’ reluctant shepherd, steering them toward manual-labor jobs and scolding them for eating their toothpaste.
Witherspoon is entirely believable as a harried Middle American who doesn’t know Sudan from Somalia or Senegal. The movie doesn’t turn her into Erin Brockovich or Mother Teresa, nor does it give her a racist boyfriend to break up with. By the time she’s sufficiently charmed by the boys to get emotionally involved, we’re way ahead of her.
“The Good Lie” is a genuinely touching and occasionally powerful film, not least because the boys are so disinclined to pity themselves. Their familial loyalty, especially as expressed in a final scene that echoes “A Tale of Two Cities,” may seem as foreign to us as cellphones seem to the Sudanese, but their humanity is true to life. We learn in the closing credits that most of the African cast members are refugees, and that Duany and Jal had been conscripted as child soldiers. (The latter, playing the most troubled of the boys, is a hip-hop artist who has written a book about his boyhood called “Warchild.”) It’s an honor to walk in their shoes.
What “The Good Lie” • Three stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 1:50 • Content Mature thematic elements, some violence, brief strong language and drug use