Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 50 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (0-5): 4.5
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Director Philippe Falardeau and writer Margaret Nagle have given us an engaging social justice parable that begins with the horrific events in southern Sudan in 1983, the war between the Muslim militia groups of the north and the Christians in the south. Without overly displaying the blood and gore that would have earned the film an R rating, they present an authentic fictional story into which the facts are woven. This authenticity is heightened by the end credits and photos informing us that the Sudanese cast members all were refugees, two of them even having been forced to serve as child soldiers. Although the film stars Reece Witherspoon (and probably would not have been made without her or some other star such as Angeline Jolie in order to garner production money), she is not the center of the story, as we shall see.
Indeed, the first third of the film is set in southern Sudan where the Christian Sudanese villagers are attacked by ruthless raiders who slaughter everyone they can find. Teenaged brothers Theo and Mamere, along with their sister Abital (played as children by Okwar Jale, Peterdeng Mongok, and Keji Jale respectively) and some other children hide together, and, when they find that all of the adults have been killed, start out for Ethiopia where they believe they will be safe. One of the things they have salvaged from the village is a Bible. Because he is the oldest, Theo (Femi Oguns) is regard as inheriting the mantle of “Chief.” Desperately hungry, at one point they are able to find meat by driving off two cheetahs from a freshly killed antelope, but the meat lasts only so long before they are near starvation again. Water is so scarce that they drink urine, much to their disgust. Several of the weakened children die along the way. Theo carries a sickened boy named Daniel.
After traveling several hundred miles, they turn around when they join up with a long line of refugees heading away from Ethiopia because the soldiers there would not allow anyone to cross the border. All are heading for Kenya where there is a United Nations refugee camp. The young Jeremiah and Paul become members of Theo’s family. After days of trekking they are delighted to come upon a deep river, enabling them to drink as much water as they want. Theo is fearful that there are soldiers ahead, so he decides that his “family” will cross right away, even though the water is deep and swiftly flowing. He is able to swim across with a makeshift rope. Once he is on the others side the younger ones cling to it and emerge safe and sound. This proves to be a wise decision. In a harrowing sequence that begins with one body floating by, more and more corpses drift by as each of the four crosses over.
Having safely crossed the river, the family later is deprived of its leader when soldiers spot one of them amidst some tall grass. Theo makes the snap decision to stand with his hands raised up and slowly approach the soldiers so that they think he is alone. The others remain hidden until the soldiers have taken Theo away. Now Mamere, the next oldest, is Chief, and the small band presses on until at last they reach Kenya and the huge refugee camp at Kakuma. Theo’s fate will haunt Mamere throughout the rest of the film.
At the vast refugee camp they find the security and food they need. Years pass, and the “family” includes Mamere (Arnold Oceng), his sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel), and Jeremiah (Ger Duany), and Paul (Emmanuel Jal). Daniel has died, and as they gather at his grave, Jeremiah, who seems to be the most spiritual of the four, reads a passage from the Book of Daniel. The camp food is bland, and living conditions stark, but the family keeps hoping for better times, Mamere wanting to study so he can become a doctor. Then comes the day when they are overjoyed to find their names on the list of a US State department program that will bring a limited number of refugees to start their lives over in America.
The family’s hardships and disappointments are not over however when they arrive at the airport in NYC. Due to INS bureaucratic rules regarding unmarried women, Abital is to go to Boston and the three men to Kansas City, despite Mamere’s protests. Then the three young men are stranded at the Kansas City airport when the social worker Pamela from the sponsoring agency fails to show up. This is where Reese Witherspoon‘s character Carrie Davis enters the picture. The unmarried woman is currently engaged in some afternoon sex when the phone call interrupts, summoning her to rush to the airport. As the agency’s employment counselor she was to meet the young men the next morning, so she rushes out to meet the group. After brief introductions she apparently drops them off at their apartment with no intent of further assistance, but then backs up her van and escorts them to their digs.
No saint, this woman—and we wonder how effective a counselor she is, when she offers little information to orient them to their new surroundings. Not only do they not know what the Golden Arches signs mean, they are puzzled at first by the thin tube extending out of their soft drink cup, and do not realize that the device in their room that emits strange noises is a telephone. This fish out of water theme extends through many scenes. (Guess what they do when Carrie tells them that when they first meet someone they are to “shake hands”?) The next day when it becomes obvious that the Clueless young men are not suited to work in a fast food restaurant, Carrie visits her boss Jack (Corey Stall) at his farm where he raises cattle. The Sudanese, all of whom had once helped care for cattle, become concerned about lions attacking the animals.
Paul, skillful with his hands, is given a job at a factory assembling a plumbing device, where two stoner workmates introduce him to weed. Mamere and Jeremiah go to work at a supermarket where the vast variety of breakfast cereals bewilders them. Jeremiah, with his Christian values, is appalled to be ordered to dump outdated produce and cans into a dumpster. When he is caught giving away food to a homeless woman and reprimanded by his boss, he angrily walks off the job.
Paul even has a run-in with the law, and this brings Carrie, who had distanced herself from the men, back into their lives. Her own spiritual turn around might have been the subject of a different “redemption movie,” but this one rightly centers on the Africans, so the short sequence in which the agency rep Pamela (Sarah Baker) joins her to clean up her extremely messy apartment so she can become the young men’s sponsor symbolizes her own getting her personal life in order. During this portion of the film Mamere is able to attend school thanks to the sacrifices of his two brothers. It is at a college literature class that we see see the first of two instances that give the film its title. Assigned Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the class is discussing Huck’s lying about the runaway slave Jim so that he would not be caught and sent back into slavery. The two had become friends, thus calling into question all of the Southern-bred white boy’s notions about blacks. Mamere volunteers the opinion that Huck’s is “a good lie” because it was intended for the good of a fellow human being, rather than to advance some general idea of “truth.” In the dramatic third act, when Mamere flies back to Kenya after receiving a letter that his brother Theo might still be alive, the phrase takes on a new meaning for him—and for us.
The film is a deeply spiritual one that beautifully brings out the meaning of John 15:13, as well as the passage from John quoted above. However, religion itself is not stressed as much as it would have been were this made by a faith-based studio. There are two church scenes, one in which Jeremiah is alone meditating in the sanctuary of the church he attends, and the other during a Sunday morning worship service when the minister introduces him before he is to speak. In simple but eloquent words Jeremiah expresses his gratitude for surviving and coming to this country. This includes his insight, “They call us the lost boys of Sudan. I don’t think we are lost; I think we are found.”
It is so heartening that “Hollywood” got it right this time, with the sympathetic white characters truly taking a back seat to the Africans. It would have been better had the marketers also understood this: the poster shows a large picture of Reece Witherspoon above the picture of an African grasslands across which three very small figures are heading toward a tree. I suppose we still live in a society that requires a famous white actress or actor to arouse the public’s interest in a story about African refugees. Let’s hope that you and religious leaders will make sure that this film about what we might call “the lost and found” does not itself become lost among the swarm of lesser films being touted this month so filled with new releases! What a great opportunity it affords a youth or adult group to explore a major world problem in such an engaging way.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October 2014 issue of Visual Parables.