This is supposed to be Reese Witherspoon's year.
She has her name attached to three prestige pictures set for a 2014 release, including two by Canadian directors Philippe Falardeau (The Good Lie) and Jean-Marc Vallee (Wild), and Paul Thomas Anderson's highly-anticipated Inherent Vice. Beyond that, Reese will thrust herself into the golden gauntlet as a producer of David Fincher's adaptation of Gone Girl.
Entertainment Weekly has already coined Witherspoon's potential awards season run as a "Reesaissance." This play on words is an homage to last year's much-discussed "McConaissance," which resulted in Matthew McConaughey's Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club, also directed by Vallee. But the comparison's not a surprising one. The pair starred together in 2013's critically-acclaimed Mud and McConaughey publicly thanked super agent Jim Toth, Reese’s husband, for supporting his decision to reinvent himself with the challenging role of outspoken AIDS activist Ron Woodroof.
Like McConaughey before her, Reese is hungry. Plus, she's also due for a comeback. She made more headlines in 2013 for her Atlanta arrest for disorderly conduct during her husband's DUI than she did for Mud or Atom Egoyan's Devil's Knot. Prior to that, her recent string of films, which included This Means War, Water for Elephants, and How Do You Know all underperformed at the box office.
As for her arrest? It happened while shooting The Good Lie, making its world premiere at TIFF. Luckily for her, Falardeau's film delivers.
Surprisingly not schmaltzy, and full of heart, the film has a The Blind Side meets Erin Brockovich feel, but instead of focusing on its female lead, the story’s power comes from it subject: the Lost Boys (and Girls) of Sudan.
The Good Lie opens with four Sudanese refugees about to board a plane to the U.S. from Kenya, after spending more than a decade in a refugee camp. Soon, the film shows, through flashback, exactly how they got there. Orphaned by the brutalities of war, six young children make a barefoot trek through three countries and the arid African wilderness to find safety, and asylum. Along the way, they meet up with others, and lose some of their peers to illness, or gunfire. The child actors are phenomenally expressive and emotive -- you truly believe their bond with each other. The eldest child, Theo, sacrifices himself for the survival of the troupe, giving up himself to the rebels. Mamere, Theo’s youngest brother, then becomes “chief” of the group. Later, only four survive, and make it to the Kenyan border, where they begin to live in a refugee camp.
Years later, they arrive in New York. The three boys, now in their 20s, are sent to Kansas City, Miss., while their “sister” Abitol (Kuoth Wiel), is sent to Boston, Mass. because no family would sponsor a woman. After much pleading, the family remains separated for most of the film, which, over time, sends one of the Lost Boys, Paul (played by Canadian-Sudanese former refugee and child soldier, Emmanuelle Jal) into a tailspin. When Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Paul and Jeremiah (Ger Duany) arrive in Kansas City, they’re met by Witherspoon’s Carrie Davis at the airport.
Right away you get the impression that Carrie’s life is a mess, and that she’s a woman “in control.” She arrives at the airport fresh from a one night stand and chooses not to put her bra back on because “they’re from Africa, they’re used to it.” Carrie sets the three men up with their host family housing, and tries to secure them employment at minimum wage jobs. All three have difficulty transitioning, but none more so than Paul, who becomes a pot-smoking burnout.
Witherspoon’s Carrie takes a back seat in the film, and guides the three Lost Boys to jobs, safety, and security, and helps them transition into American life with her boss, Jack (Corey Stoll), who happens to be a benevolent cattle rancher in his spare time. He also drives a Mustang, because why not? Of course, Carrie can’t get her life together - her house looks like something straight out of “Hoarders.” Though she wants to keep living her solitary life of carefree sex and mindless work, she’s drawn to the story of the Lost Boys, and their success in Kansas City.
Reese is saucy here. She gets to play a woman who prefers tequila to coffee, which is an interesting coincidence, considering her real-life arrest during production. Her feel-good performance is outshined by Oceng's Mamere, whose expressive eyes and earnest delivery could earn him some awards attention. Similarly, Ger Duany, who plays Jeremiah, may be recognizable to some for playing a Sudanese refugee in 2004’s “I Heart Huckabees" — which also premiered at TIFF — alongside Mark Wahlberg, Jonah Hill and Dustin Hoffman.
Running at 110 minutes, the film is weighed down by the compression of its compelling material and the volume of its sight gags.
"You're from Somalia!" says Carrie, when she picks the trio up from the airport. "Senegal?"
"Sudan," says Mamere, correcting her.
Some of these add to the movie's humour and heart — like when Mamere, Jeremiah and Paul are gifted with a Jello mould upon their American arrival, and it gradually melts on the counter — but other pieces of brevity, which include the Lost Boys waiting by the window of their apartment for Carrie's "call”, fall flat.
Falardeau's last effort, Monsieur Lazhar, earned him an invite to the Oscars in 2012, but his English-language debut might be better-suited for the Golden Globes. The Good Lie is a crowd-pleasing, uplifting story of hope and survival, which avoids the "white woman saves all" cliche by shifting the focus and tone of the film to a different subject. Instead of Carrie saving Mamere, Jeremiah and Paul, they save her, in an unpredictable manner.
As for the Reese-surgence? Well, she certainly knows this is her shot. At the red carpet premiere for The Good Lie, the 38-year-old rocked a deep purple Dolce and Gabbana sleeved mini-dress, and flashed her Elle Woods smile to each outlet, as she crafted a separate one-minute answer for each. Her grin never faded, and she seemed genuinely happy to share the moment with the Lost Boys and Girls in her cast. Here’s a photo from her Instagram. The caption:
No better sandwich than with these folks- Director #PhilippeFalardeau and actors #GerDuany (left) and #KuothWiel (far right), who are also both Sudanese refugees with incredible stories of survival. Go see #TheGoodLie #TIFF14
But, it’s all just a warm-up for tonight’s premiere of Wild. Unflinchingly gritty, the film is certainly much more Oscar-baity than The Good Lie, but they are not direct competitors, due to the size of her role in each. With double the odds of any nomination (not including her yet-unseen contenders), Tracy Flick could be on her way to getting what she loves most: a win.