Having endured civil war, hunger, and dehydration during a thousand-mile trek through Africa, and 10 years in a refugee camp while awaiting resettlement in the U.S., the three "lost boys of Sudan" in God Grew Tired of Us can certainly withstand their sketchy portrayals in a borderline lazy but nonetheless compelling documentary, co-produced by National Geographic.
It's only a slight exaggeration to say that God Grew Tired of Us, winner of two documentary prizes at last year's Sundance, is another Hollywood gloss on human tragedy. In the tradition of any number of Tinseltown's historic spins, the doc finds its none-too-inconvenient truth in the miraculous exception to the rule. Millions have died in the Sudanese war between Islamic fundamentalists and separatist Christians, and only half of the 27,000 boys who fled Sudan in 1983 (girls were enslaved) reached refuge in Kenya, where a small number were selected to emigrate to the U.S. in 2001. Of these, filmmaker Christopher Quinn chose three to follow -- presumably on the basis of their potential to Make It.
The film's title implies unmitigated suffering, but a full third of the movie is devoted to the men's faintly comic attempts at comprehending modern American conveniences -- potato chips, TV, escalators, the toilet. As Nicole Kidman's voice-overs reduce the impact of Britain's fickle colonialism to a single sentence, the root causes of the Sudanese war are left to some other documentary to explore.
What the film does do very effectively is allow the three eloquent subjects to steal it away from Quinn and his apparent ambition to make them look merely adorable. This they accomplish largely in interviews sprinkled throughout the film. Time and again, the men expand the movie's focus through their words. "It is a shame to have a country that doesn't take care of its own people," one of them says of Sudan -- but, implicitly, of the land of freedom as well.
Two of the men -- Daniel Abul Pach and Panther Bior -- take up residence in Pittsburgh, while John Bul Dau sets up in Syracuse. Most of their waking hours are spent at -- or en route to -- menial jobs, although Quinn ensures that there's a copious amount of leisure-time shopping in the film. Whatever dramatic structure Quinn's unfocused portrait contains is supplied by the subjects, who use their increasing melancholy to direct the movie's tone themselves. Were it not for Quinn's interviews with them, one wouldn't know from watching his film that accepting loneliness, stress, overwork, and meager finances is a condition of life for the lost boys, if not for most immigrants in the United States.
But here, the American dream seems to triumph over all manner of African adversity. If these men cannot only manage the old bootstrap-pull, but blend in at Whole Foods as well, what's the problem? By default, the most galvanizing scene has John's long-lost mother, fresh off the plane from Sudan, expressing her elation at seeing her son -- falling to the ground, dancing, and issuing lovely musical yelps. Her immediate success in the land of opportunity is having not assimilated in the least.