The title of “The Good Lie” refers to those instances when deception may be the morally right recourse; it turns out the movie is something of a good lie itself. From its poster and promotional materials, which prominently feature Reese Witherspoon gazing beatifically over a vista of an African savannah, viewers might think this will be yet another uplifting tale of a white woman coming to the aid of desperately needy people of color — in this case, south Sudanese refugees escaping genocide and teeming refugee camps in the early 2000s.
Happily, that isn’t the story line in “The Good Lie,” in which Witherspoon tamps down her inborn perkiness to play Carrie, a hard-edged, unsmiling employment agency executive. When she’s called upon to drive to the Kansas City airport to retrieve Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Paul (Emmanuel Jal) and Jeremiah (Ger Duany) — three south Sudanese emigrants sponsored by a Christian relief service — she moans and groans, summarily dropping them off at their cramped new apartment practically without stopping the car.
That brusque, unsentimental moment comes midway through “The Good Lie,” which spends most of its time tracing the early life of the three protagonists, first as children escaping the torching of their village and the brutal murder of their families. After walking hundreds of miles from southern Sudan to Ethiopia and finally Kenya — suffering unimaginable danger, loss and hardship along the way — they finally end up in a camp outside Nairobi where, over 13 years, they grow into strong, resourceful young men. Mamere, by this time, has begun nurturing dreams of becoming a doctor.
It’s the great strength of “The Good Lie” — which has been directed with sensitivity and simplicity by Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”) from a script by Margaret Nagle — that it’s told from the point of view of Mamere and his compatriots. By the time they finally make it to Kansas City (where they wondrously behold running water and offer prayers of thanks for “this miracle food, pizza”), they’ve established their own considerable charisma and emotional pull, so when Witherspoon finally shows up, her presence doesn’t come close to overpowering theirs.
Nor does “The Good Lie” adhere to saccharine, self- mythologizing tropes about noble Midwesterners opening their hearts and homes to Africa’s tired and poor: The reception the refugees get isn’t particularly compassionate, understanding or goopily self-righteous. (“So what brings you to America?” a Waffle House manager chirpily asks a south Sudanese refugee looking for a job. “My parents were killed in a civil war and my sisters were taken as slaves,” the young man replies, to his interlocutor’s quizzical stare.)
But if the Lost Boys’ welcome isn’t always enthusiastic, neither is it hostile; the tone of the movie may be gentle, but it’s never pandering or simplistic. When Witherspoon’s character inevitably softens (somewhat abruptly), “The Good Lie” takes an unexpected but welcome turn into genuine heartwarming territory. But that emotional payoff feels honorably earned, not by Carrie’s conversion but by Mamere, Paul and Jeremiah, who have made a sacrament of survival by way of steadfast faith, shared memory and their own reserves of extraordinary resilience. In a bait-and-switch worthy of its title, “The Good Lie” may lure in viewers eager to see a Reese Witherspoon movie, but they’ll fall in love with something else entirely.
★ ★ ★
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains thematic elements, brief strong profanity and drug use. 110 minutes.