It won’t be giving the game away to disclose the good lie at the heart of writer/director Shawn Linden’s indie thriller, The Good Lie.
Cullen Francis (Thomas Dekker) dashes off to school one morning muttering a dismissive “Whatever” at his caring mother. Too soon, she is dead, killed in a senseless auto accident.
Some months later, the young man makes a discovery – an old videotape, recorded when he was an infant, in which his mother discloses that he is not who he thinks he is. He learns he is the product of a brutal assault and rape that his mother barely survived, and about which Cullen was never told.
Stunned and angry at the lies he has heard for 21 years,the young man sets off on an impetuous road odyssey to find the jailed rapist who is his biological father. In his quest, he is anxiously tracked by the man who has been playing that nurturing role, Richard Francis (Matt Craven).
An interesting premise and, supported by Dekker, a young actor with enormous screen presence, a well-acted film that is almost always engaging.
But Linden’s feature comes wrapped with a major distortion – and one important sin of omission of its own.
The distortion is an elaborate but ultimately awkward framing device: a summer camping trip taken by Cullen and four male friends to a remote lakefront site. There, in the age-old tradition, they attempt to outdo each other with grisly campfire tales of horror.
The film thus bounces annoyingly back and forth between the meat – Cullen’s quest to find the source of his paternity, with dad Richard in hot pursuit – and the tepid appetizers: increasingly lurid campfire tales. Showing instead of telling, Linden has filmed these stories separately, but that becomes yet another distraction.
There’s method to all of this apparent plot madness, which I won’t divulge. But while the payoff is clever, it comes with too high a cost: the narrative drag it exerts on the larger story. That yarn has its own metronomic quirks. The action lurches between Cullen’s encounters with people who might be able to help him find his biological father; and Richard’s own meetings with the same people, as he searches for his son.
The film’s sin of omission is more serious, a dramatic opportunity that could have delivered a genuine climax and huge emotional dividends. Given the rethinks to which virtually all movie scripts are subjected, this plot point must have been considered – a penultimate or final convergence of son and both fathers. Without it, the viewer may feel, as I did, that Linden has chosen the safer, neater route to resolution.
Still, there is a lot of fine work on the screen, particularly Dekker’s carefully wrought balance of inchoate anger, youthful bravado and raw fear. The Good Lie demonstrates again the fatal flaw that affects too many Canadian films: it’s the script, stupid.