Hard reality of being a refugee

Review Drama


110 minutes/Opens tomorrow/**1/2

The story: Civil war in Sudan (1983-2005) has swelled the refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Thousands of children are resettled in the United States in one of the largest such operations in history. One small group of boys is sent to live in Kansas City, Missouri. Carrie Davis (Reese Witherspoon), who works in an employment agency, is aghast at finding herself the only one helping the boys adjust to American society.

It must be close to Oscar race season when dramas like this one appear. On the surface, its themes bring to mind recent works such as The Blind Side (2009) and Precious (2009), stories of forging new futures after leaving pain and poverty behind.

And not coincidentally, like The Blind Side, there is the somewhat uncomfortable "white saviour" component here as well, embodied in the person of Carrie.

But there are a few differences between this story and others of its ilk. For one thing, while the Sudanese refugee airlift from Africa into the United States is historical fact, the persons named here are fictional, unlike the typical "based on a true story" films of Oscar-bait uplift.

Perhaps because the story is freed from the constraints of truthfulness to actual events, Carrie is as flawed as a human could be who might still be able to care for a group of newly arrived African immigrants.

She is careless with her choice of male companions, for example, and comes slowly to feel for the plight of the boys who come to a new land without having seen an escalator or telephone.

The flaws humanise the reluctant humanitarian, but the good intentions are undermined by the sappiness of the premise that doing good work is a balm that heals all other parts of one's damaged psyche.

All the teen and adult Africans here are played by actual former Sudanese refugees, with the children played by the offspring of resettled Sudanese-Americans, so points have to be given here for appropriate casting, and the largely inexperienced cast deliver fine performances.

Helmed by Canadian director Phillipe Falardeau (the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, 2011), the film itself consists of interesting moments, though never quite gelling into a whole.

The first half is escape-from-hell The Killing Fields (1984) while the second is a subtle, bleakly comic critique of Western good intentions versus the hard reality of immigrant life.

The film should have stayed in Africa and ended with the airlift; but who would buy tickets for a story without a recognisable star actress?


This article was first published on Oct 22, 2014.
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