Movie News & Reviews

Movie set in Kansas City tells the story of Sudanese Lost Boys

Ger Duany (from left), Kuoth Wiel and Reese Witherspoon take to the ice (in Olathe) in a scene from “The Good Lie.” The movie was actually filmed in Atlanta.
Ger Duany (from left), Kuoth Wiel and Reese Witherspoon take to the ice (in Olathe) in a scene from “The Good Lie.” The movie was actually filmed in Atlanta. Warner Bros.

After 13 long years in the refugee camp that took them in as orphans, four Sudanese 20-somethings get life-changing news: Their names turn up on the list to leave Africa.

“We are going to Kansas City, Mo.!” one of them shouts as all four start jumping up and down. “We are going to America!”

That’s the story told in the new movie “The Good Lie,” which stars a brunette Reese Witherspoon as a Kansas City employment counselor who befriends the three young men. (The fourth refugee, the sister of one of the guys, gets sent to a family in Boston.)

The movie is fictional but based on real events: About 3,600 Lost Boys (and girls) from Sudan settled in the United States around 2001 after surviving civil war in their homeland. Sixty or so came to Kansas City then, and hundreds have arrived since.

The film doesn’t open until Oct. 3, but a red-carpet screening on Monday at AMC Studio 30 in Olathe will include a Q&A with two of the stars (but not Witherspoon) and a producer. The event is invitation-only; the audience is expected to include dignitaries as well as some former Lost Boys who live here.

Although much of the movie takes place in Kansas City, “The Good Lie” was mostly filmed in the Atlanta area, where tax incentives proved irresistible. (A push to lure the production here proved futile.)

So why not just set the movie in Atlanta, which also took in Lost Boys?

Kansas City is “a little smaller and more quaint city. Atlanta’s a little more cosmopolitan,” said producer Molly Smith, who will be here for Monday’s screening. “We just wanted the feel of Kansas City. It was just a creative call.”

The first half hour of “The Good Lie” follows children who, to escape the carnage, walk hundreds of miles to refugee camps. Along the way, they battle wild animals and drink their own urine to stay alive. And there’s always the looming threat of men with guns.

Those scenes were filmed in South Africa.

In preparation for their new life in America, the refugees, now adults, take classes. A block of ice is passed around to show them what winter in these parts feels like.

Mamere, Jeremiah and Paul eventually move into their new Kansas City apartment, where they’re baffled by the gift of a jiggling green Jell-O mold, not to mention ringing phones, light switches and toothbrushes. With the help of Witherspoon’s character, Carrie, who won’t take no for an answer, the men land jobs at a grocery store and a factory.

To help sell the notion that what film audiences are seeing is Kansas City, a crew spent a weekend here, which explains familiar-looking freeway shots, the downtown skyline and the like. It doesn’t explain the 314 area code on the storefront window of Carrie’s employment agency.

And yes, in case you were wondering, cows turn up in this version of our city, but some of them belong to Carrie’s boss (Corey Stoll). (He happens to own a farm, where the new Kansas Citians enjoy hanging out with the cattle. They had tended cows in Sudan.)

The film was shot from April to June 2013.

The audience’s first look at Carrie comes in a motel room, where her amorous activities with a man are interrupted by a phone call looking for someone to pick up the refugees at the airport. The motel guy turns out to be a Waffle House manager who later refuses to hire them.

“Where is your village?” one of the young Africans asks Carrie during the car ride in from Kansas City International Airport.

Screenwriter Margaret Nagle (“Boardwalk Empire”) traveled the country, including Kansas City, to learn about the Lost Boys.

“She did years of research, and there were several women who inspired Carrie, women who helped these boys resettle in various communities like Nashville and Kansas City and Atlanta, who came across them usually at their churches,” Smith said.

Smith already knew the plight of the Lost Boys when the script landed on her desk. Her sister met three of them at a church in Memphis, Tenn., and her family helped one of them get through college.

“They all were really just dropped off by resettlement agencies and left to fend for themselves,” Smith said.

A typical Hollywood treatment of this story would give Witherspoon most of the screen time, Smith said. Instead, director Philippe Falardeau, who in 1994 had helped shoot a documentary in Sudan, “really puts you in the shoes of the children on their journey.”

That choice “could have been the reason the screenplay struggled for 10 years to get off the ground,” Smith said. “People didn’t know which box to put it in.”

The film is also being used to raise money for Lost Boys organizations through the Good Lie Fund (thegoodliefund.org). The fund’s initial focus will be the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, which was shot for the movie.

Two local kids and their father are prominently featured in “The Good Lie.” Keji Jale, 12 during filming, plays young Abital, the girl in the group, and her brother Okwar, 13, plays a boy named Theo. Filmmakers visited several U.S. cities with Sudanese communities, including Kansas City, and auditioned as many as 1,500 people.

The children’s dad, Elikana Jale, wasn’t expecting to become a movie star when he took the kids to Atlanta for filming, but he wound up landing not one but two small parts: James, a carefree friend of the (grown-up) refugees at the camp, and a left-for-dead old man the youngsters come across.

Jale, 40, who works in the Kansas City Public Works Department, has seen “The Good Lie” and was disappointed that so much got cut out.

But the director had warned him that he wouldn’t enjoy it the first time, that he’d be critical of his own performance. All of which turned out to be true.

Jale was born in South Sudan, moved to the northern part of the country at age 14 and to Houston at 21. He and his family relocated here in 2004.

As for Monday’s premiere: “Walking down the red carpet? I couldn’t believe it,” Jale said. Will he dress up? “Just regular clothes that I wear for church.”

Co-stars Emmanuel Jal and Ger (like “air”) Duany, both natives of South Sudan who were forced to become child soldiers, will also attend the Kansas City screening.

Jal, who was smuggled to Kenya by a British aid worker when he was 13, found that he and his character, Paul, had much in common.

“I’m hyper, I’m always in trouble, I challenge the system,” Jal said.

In the film, Paul works at a Kansas City company making bathroom fixtures. He is told by two co-workers that he’s out of sync — translation: too productive. So they introduce him to marijuana.

Jal is a hip-hop artist with a new album out, “The Key.” Most of the tracks were inspired by the movie, and one, “We Fall,” plays in the closing credits.

Even as the movie was being filmed, violence broke out yet again in Sudan, Jal said, and family members were killed. Calling his sister there, he could hear gunshots and babies crying.

Duany, who plays Jeremiah (his supermarket boss calls him Jerry), knows the Midwest: He was first placed in Des Moines, Iowa. But because he grew up mostly in Bloomington, Ind., he considers himself a Hoosier.

Reading the script before he auditioned, he became so emotional he had to wash his face before he could finish it.

And although next week will be his first time here, he already feels a connection — maybe the same one the filmmakers did.

“I think Kansas City is like a home to a lot of us, especially when it comes to the Lost Boys,” he said.

To reach Tim Engle, call 816-234-4779 or send email to tengle@kcstar.com. Twitter: @tim_engle.

RED CARPET IN OLATHE

Monday’s special screening of “The Good Lie” at AMC Studio 30 in Olathe is not open to the public, but anyone who wants to watch the red-carpet arrivals is welcome, starting at 5:30 p.m. Co-stars Ger Duaney (“I Heart Huckabees”) and Emmanuel Jal will be among the notables.

ABOUT THAT TITLE

The odd title “The Good Lie” is explained when one of the Sudanese refugees is introduced to the concept of a “good lie” in an English class discussion of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It’s a lie told to benefit someone else, and it comes up a couple of times in the movie.

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