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MOVIE REVIEW

Boys' tale inspires despair and hope

"It's not what I was thinking," says John Bul Dau, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, about adjusting to life in America. (NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC FILMS/NEWMARKET)

Seesawing between despair and soul-affirming inspiration, "God Grew Tired of Us" is a documentary to make you proud of what America offers to the rest of the world and worried that it can't keep its promises.

Actually, Christopher Quinn and Tommy Walker's watchful heartbreaker is about the Lost Boys of Sudan, the tens of thousands of children, mostly of the Dinka people, who fled their country's civil war in the 1980s. They crossed the Sahara to temporary safety in Ethiopia and, in 1991, made another 1,000-mile trek, this time to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where they sat for 10 years. The film picks up early in the new millennium, when a number of the Lost Boys, now grown men, were allowed to emigrate to the United States.

Archival news footage makes shockingly clear what hell these children endured; life in Kakuma, by contrast, is a stable Kafkaesque limbo. The filmmakers focus on three men, all delirious with the prospect of getting out and -- even better -- going to this mystical land called America of which they've heard so much. John Bul Dau is headed to Syracuse, N.Y., while Panther Bior and Daniel Abol Pach are slated to be roommates in Pittsburgh, which the latter is pretty sure is in the country of Pennsylvania.

The wrenching cultural shift is initially played for cosmic comedy, with the men in a Kenyan no-man's-land one day and on an airplane filled with electronic gadgets the next. Once they arrive, we see them wander the aisles of a well-stocked produce market, overcome with the largesse. A doughnut with sprinkles is met with a hesitant "This is a food?"

"God Grew Tired of Us" is in it for the long haul, though, and over the course of three years, we see John, Panther, and Daniel hunker down and try to make it work. It is far from easy. The Sudanese are desperately lonely but local merchants feel intimidated when they travel around in groups. One of the Lost Boys, we are told, falls prey to mental illness and is institutionalized.

Daniel, John, and Panther work in factories and take various McJobs, and their initial happiness turns to concern as they become bill-paying, credit-owing Americans. They haven't been relocated so much as dislocated. "It's not what I was thinking," sighs John. "I thought we shall go further than this."

He does go further, though, and the ultimate message of "God Grew Tired of Us" is that we each make our own contract with this country, and that the ones who know that have a head start. The three men struggle toward college educations while sending money back to friends and family in Africa; by film's end, they're all involved with humanitarian projects in their homeland.

John rises in the ranks of the Lost Boys Foundation, the organization that keeps refugees in 23 states in contact with each other, and he hits the lecture circuit to raise awareness of the crisis in Sudan, trading his suit for tribal garb because he knows it plays better.

If there's a flaw, it's only that the movie's scope isn't wider. At a Lost Boys gathering in Michigan, some of the men bristle at the sight of younger refugees who've adopted the hip-hop camouflage and body language of their new home. "You are away from your culture; please come back," John says sadly to them. We never hear their response. There are themes of diaspora and belonging barely touched on here, but "God Grew Tired of Us" already has its hands and heart full.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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