Opening Friday

Reese Witherspoon is an interesting actress who can be hard to take seriously.

She’s as good as any A-list star at avoiding bombs, give or take a This is War or two, and she won an Oscar for her role as June Carter Cash in Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. But she doesn’t project the gravitas of other actresses of her generation who have less box-office clout, perhaps because of her enduring association with silly fare such as Legally Blonde.

This year is supposed to change that, with two Oscar-bait films starring Witherspoon opening within a couple of months of each other. Studios are often wary of rival films leaching votes away from their own release, and sooner or later, one blinks and moves its release date. But after watching THE GOOD LIE, I don’t think anyone connected to December’s Wild needs to worry about that.

The Good Lie is the true story of a group of young survivors caught up in the Sudanese civil war. After their entire village is massacred, six children attempt to make their way on foot to refugee camps in Kenya. After numerous run-ins with enemy militias sent to murder every child they find, four of the children make it to the relative safety of the camps: pre-teen de facto chief Mamere (Arnold Oceng), devout Jeremiah (Ger Duany), troubled Paul (Emmanuel Jal) and Mamere’s sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel).

After years in the camps, the four, now young adults, enter the U.S. through a government refugee program. This comes with its own problems: The program is expensive, and each refugee must eventually pay the government back or risk deportation. Plus, Abital is sent to Boston while the three men are relocated to Kansas City. They must adapt to their new surroundings and vocational situations while dealing with the unexpected loss of another family member.

Witherspoon chews the scenery as Carrie Davis, an employment agency rep that finds work for newly arrived refugees. Davis is a brassy spitfire who lives in a filthy apartment and has affairs with Waffle House managers during their lunch breaks. Despite being told by her boss (House of Cards‘ Corey Stoll) not to get attached to the three men, it isn’t long before Carrie is hunting the streets for Paul.

There isn’t much explanation for Carrie’s sudden interest in her clients’ problems, which is a general issue with the film’s characterizations. We know that Paul is sad because he spends all his screen time smoking marijuana and scowling; we gather that Mamere is buckling under the pressure of leadership. But it’s never brought up explicitly until the film needs a fight scene. Likewise, Jeremiah’s new church is never mentioned until the filmmakers realize they need an uplifting sermon at the end.

This muddled tone affects everything. Witherspoon is pushed as the star of the film, despite being a supporting member of the cast. Strong religious themes normally indicate that a studio is counting on churches to push attendance, but the dialogue has too many goddamns and fucks for a Crown Award nomination.

By never settling on strong points of view for the main characters, director Phillipe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and screenwriter Margaret Nagle (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) fail to sufficiently tell the tale of these “Lost Boys of the Sudan.” There is a great film to be made from this story, but this isn’t it.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The kids aren’t all right.”