The recipe for a film with award ambitions is as simple as boiling an egg. Choose a fact-based story depicting Justice first outraged, and then triumphant, and add an Oscar winner for pedigreed spice. Those ingredients, appearing in so many late-year movies, can stoke a viewer’s distrust at the manipulation of nobler sentiments. So moviegoers are forgiven for bringing an educated cynicism to The Good Lie, a story of some of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who in the 1990s walked a thousand miles to escape abduction and death at the hands of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and in 2001 arrived at the alien refuge of Kansas City, Mo., for a new life.
Reese Witherspoon, an Academy Award winner for Walk the Line, is a supporting player as job counselor Carrie in this fictionalized story of the genocidal ordeal depicted in the 2006 documentary God Grew Tired of Us. Three boys and a girl, Christians fleeing the Muslim SPLA, must teach themselves to become predators, feasting on an antelope killed by leopards, and to cross a river clogged with corpses. Only their mantra “I want to live, I do not want to die” sustains them until they reach Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp.
Years later, as young adults, Mamere (Arnold Oceng), his sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel) and their co-escapees Jeremiah (Ger Duany) and Paul (Emmanuel Jal) find homes in the U.S., the men in Kansas City and Abital in Boston. Suddenly the film, written by Margaret Nagle (Boardwalk Empire) and directed by Philippe Falardeau (of the Oscar-nominated Quebec drama Monsieur Lazhar), boomerangs into a Coming to America culture-clash fable. How do we use a telephone? Why does the market that hired us throw out good food when people are hungry? What’s this funny cigarette my slacker co-workers gave me? Will I ever be reunited with my beloved sister Abital?
Carrie, a blowsy type with the requisite big heart, handles the red tape, shouting, “Who do I have to screw around here to see a goddamn immigration supervisor?” Meanwhile, the four African actors–all are refugees or children of refugees, and two were forced to serve in the SPLA–excel at the emotional heavy lifting. Their harrowing biographies lend heft to a story drenched in heartbreak.
The lumpiness of The Good Lie’s progression–from infancy to adulthood, and from the horrors of war to gentle social comedy and back again–proclaims a respect for facts and truths that can’t be molded into a smooth narrative. Besides, if the saga of Lost Boys (and girls) kidnapped to become soldiers (or child prostitutes) is not a tale of good confronting and outrunning evil, what is? And if a moviegoer cannot cry for their great tragedy and be touched by their small victories, who on earth deserves our tears and cheers?
This appears in the October 13, 2014 issue of TIME.