I was skeptical. Reese Witherspoon seemed an unlikely poster-girl for The Good Lie. I wondered how a blue-eyed starlet could well promote a film about the Lost Boys of Sudan, the 20,000+ children who lost their families due to civil war from 1983-2005.

I braced myself for disappointment, another Hollywood film presenting a great white hero for African people.

But now I’ve seen The Good Lie. And now I’ve heard men who were once themselves these lost boys say that it tells their story well enough. My skepticism has given way to appreciation.

Modern media feeds us a lie that heroes are the ones with individual strength and power. [. . .] The Good Lie offers an opportunity to consider the reality for those who are truly naked and afraid in our world.The film’s title suggests that a dishonorable act—say, a lie—if enacted as a sacrifice for another, effects good. By using Witherspoon to hook audiences, the movie pulls off a pretty good lie itself. Through this cinematic sleight of hand, we fall in love with the actual main characters—a group of Sudanese war orphans.

Through the film’s story, we are drawn into the struggles, sacrifices, and resilience of refugee life in Africa and the United States, and we are exposed to the alienation, excess, and ignorance of our dominant culture. In the end we realize they are the true heroes, not their supposed protector.

The shining stars of The Good Lie are themselves Lost Boys: Sudanese war refugees, child soldiers, and children of refugees. Arnold Oseng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, and Kuoth Wiel have a captivating presence born of honest experience and witness to a life that is rarely revealed on the big screen. We watch as they seek to maintain connection to family and culture, find meaningful work, forge friendships, and keep a sense of home. Although Witherspoon’s character plays a role in their lives as advocate, she is never their savior. She needs them as much they need her.

As a poorly equipped employment-agency representative, Witherspoon’s character seems better at sleeping around and drinking too much than at doing her job. In a scene that makes the audience laugh, but will make anyone who has served as intermediary between bureaucracy and real people cringe, she demands, “Who do I have to screw around here to see an immigration supervisor?” In real life that scene would conclude with her being escorted out by security. But this scene works to strengthen the theme: she is willing to humiliate herself, make a public scene, for the sake of another.

The more she opens herself up to her clients, the more we see that need knows no side of the desk. She drinks a beer and eats her microwave dinner alone in front of the computer while the men who will become her brothers hold hands and remember the songs of their homeland beneath the mid-west sky. Over the course of the film, her house transforms from messy to pristine, perhaps too quick of a transformation to be plausible, but the motif points to a deeper truth. When we give ourselves for others, our own healing begins. As she gets closer to this sibling group, we see the grief at the root of her messy life. When her life is still chaotic, she opens herself to help others, and her own life begins to improve.

But most importantly, Witherspoon’s character is not the center of the story. The main characters are the ones who demonstrate a balance of self-reliance mixed with a rare heroism of selflessness.

The Good Lie begins with a group of children in South Sudan who turn from serenely tending the family’s livestock to watching in terror as bombs destroy their village. These suddenly homeless orphans join thousands of others just like them as they walk hundreds of dangerous miles. In symbolic scenes representing many years of migration, the children walk first toward Ethiopia—where the first wave of displaced children had found refuge—only to be forced out by Ethiopia’s civil war in 1991. From there, they travel to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

During this harrowing trek, the group of children is reduced by the horrors of violence, disease, forced conscription, malnutrition, and exhaustion. All that time the meaning of sacrifice is enlarged in their hearts. After the youngest child dies of dehydration, the eldest “chief” of the children urinates into a tin pot, holds it to his lips, and speaks: “I want to live. I do not want to die.” He takes a sip and passes it to the next. From his body he pours out the promise of life. Each child grimaces, repeats the phrase, drinks, and wipes his mouth in disgust.

In this scene, the profane act of children drinking urine to survive takes on a sacramental quality. Every life matters, and we are reminded of the lengths to which love will go to see that not one should perish.

We follow the remnant of survivors out of the overcrowded camp in Kenya, where they ate porridge from that same tin pot, to the strange and exotic land of Kansas City, Missouri, where they eat “the miracle food pizza” from a box and witness the absurdity of our nation’s excess and waste. Here we see people who stared death in the face stare in wonder at such oddities as an entire grocery store aisle dedicated to dog food.

As a newly hired grocery store employee, Jeremiah is told to throw out pounds of expired but edible food. He struggles between obeying his employer and obeying his conscience. In a choice that repeats itself throughout the film, he is willing to lose what he has for the sake of another.

Through scenes like this one, the film nicely introduces the refugee story. But it does not reveal the whole picture. Although the movie softens the brutality, a refugee’s life is lived amid war and struggles against hopelessness. Sensitive viewers like me will appreciate that the film is not too violent, but I hope it will provoke viewers to learn more about current refugee crises. I hope that viewers won’t just pat themselves on the backs for helping the lucky few who make it into this country, but instead feel challenged to consider the thousands still languishing in the camps.

The children in the film spent ten years in the camp while most refugees in the world spend more than two decades in “temporary” refugee camps. Disease, competition for resources, and jealousy toward those who find asylum outside of the camp make it very hard to maintain integrity, hope, and friendship. Additionally, although the bombing scene of the film is true, many of the Lost Boys of Sudan were not orphans but were soldiers recruited from their villages.

Modern media feeds us a lie that heroes are the ones with individual strength and power. Millions of viewers tune in to shows like Naked and Afraid to be entertained by modern gladiators who can overcome hunger, severe weather, and natural predators. Our empire makes survival of the fittest into a game to be won. Yet we often tune out to the life-and-death reality of human survival for refugees.

For the 52 million forcibly displaced people today, 50% of whom are under 18, reliance on other people is the only way to live. Currently 80% of the world’s refugees are being hosted by developing countries with struggling economies and weak infrastructures. The United States welcomes only about 0.1% of the global population of forcibly displaced people. The Good Lie offers an opportunity to consider the reality for those who are truly naked and afraid in our world.

While we worship superhuman idols, The Good Lie reminds us of our frail humanity. It shows the dangers in asking ignorant questions about people’s scars. It shows how very much we need one another. It shows that love is willingness to offer your life for another. In an age of hostility and isolation, that is a message we cannot afford to ignore or forget.