The thing about seeing movies at the Toronto Film Festival is that not everybody sees the movies at the same time. Sometimes you'll catch an early screening before your friends/colleagues/the public. More often than not, someone will have seen the film you're interested in before you will. This is where that nebulous "buzz" comes into play. Who's talking about which movies? What are they saying? Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children? Horrible buzz. Haven't talked to one person who's liked it. The Scandanavian Force Majeure: tremendous. So many people talking about how much they loved it. Have you seen Julianne Moore's performance in Still Alice? Jessica Chastain in Miss Julie? Has anyone seen Manglehorn? Is it worth skipping my 2:30 Pawn Sacrifice to see it?
I went into director Phillippe Falardeau's The Good Lie having heard nothing, beyond the fact that people knew Reese Witherspoon was in it. All week looking at the schedule, it presented itself as the other Reese Witherspoon movie (she's here promoting Wild; I see it on Friday; I'm excited). Nobody was really expecting much. "Isn't that Reese's The Blind Side moment?" someone asked me in line. Judging from the film's trailer, you'd expect that.
Which is not to even get into the entire semester's worth of semiotics I could wring out of the poster, with Witherspoon's wise, beatific face presiding high over not even just our Sudanese main characters, but over Africa itself.
Now, ugly symbolism aside, that's probably very smart marketing. You have Reese Witherspoon in your movie, you sell it as a Reese Witherspoon movie. Only... it's not. And the movie's all the better for it. That's not a slight against Reese Witherspoon (have we met? I'm not wired that way). But a movie about Sudanese refugees in the United States where the Reese Witherspoon character is the lead sounds awful. That does sound like The Blind Side.
Witherspoon doesn't show up until about 40 minutes into the movie, roughly, and by then the film has firmly established itself as the story of four Sudanese refugees. We see them as children, rustled out of their village, witness to unspeakable slaughter, subject to a harrowing on-foot journey to Kenya that not everyone survives. Thirteen years later, they are Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital, and they get the good news that they have been cleared to emigrate to America. The three men get placed in Kansas City, but a last-minute bureaucratic roadblock sends their sister Abital to Boston. We stick with the boys in Missouri, where they must acclimate to their new country and its way of life — Sarah Baker (Louie; Tammy) plays a cheery Christian charities woman who sets them up with their apartment — and find jobs. Here's where Witherspoon (and Corey Stoll, playing her boss) comes in. There's a moment when you expect the story to shift entirely to her character; she's kind of a mess; she's kind of callous; there's a WHOLE lot of self-improvement that these four soulful Africans could help her achieve.
That's not quite what happens. We see her life, but we see far more of theirs, as they struggle to make their talents fit into an American job market. Mamere wants to be a doctor, but for now he's stocking shelves. Jeremiah is a man of faith whose morals clash with his employers. Paul turns out to be a whiz on the assembly line, but he's also the most frustrated and self-destructive. One of the delights of this movie is how all these struggles are taken seriously and depicted with great care and kindness. There's Hollywood gloss here, yes, but it's neither unctuous nor patronizing. Mamere is wracked with guilt over the brother they left behind in Africa, and now the sister stuck in Boston. Witherspoon and Stoll advocate on their behalf, but it is ultimately Mamere who must take the crucial action.
As the credits rolled, we were told that the four leads — Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Kuoth Wiel, and Emmanuel Jal — were all either Sudanese refugees themselves or children of same. Now, I'm not telling big-studio marketing people how to do their jobs, but maybe — MAYBE — that's an angle on selling this movie that's a bit less baldly dishonest than "You're changing that boy's life / No, he's changing mine."
This article was originally published at http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2014/09/toronto-film-festival-reese-witherspoons-the-good-lie-is-great-but-not-as-advertised/379927/