Cameras follow the new kids in school for Lost Boys of Sudan.

Boys in the Hood 

Cameras follow the new kids in school for Lost Boys of Sudan.

Hollywood loves to take characters out of their familiar environments and plop them somewhere strange and forbidding. Kooky fish-out-of-water films such as Splash and Pretty Woman often go for the obvious jokes, like the sight gag of a mermaid on Park Avenue or a flashy whore walking into New York's Plaza Hotel.

Braver filmmakers, though, sense that fresh exposure to new worlds can be frightening. Vadim Perelman got it right in last year's extraordinary House of Sand and Fog, and so do Megan Mylan and Joe Shenk, whose Lost Boys of Sudan starts a one-week engagement Friday at Tivoli Cinemas.

Filmed as much in Olathe as in Houston and Africa, the honest and touching film follows a group of adolescent boys from the killing fields of their Sudanese villages to their new homes in America. One of the film's major players is Peter, a 17-year-old who eventually attends Olathe East High School.

Tom Barry, principal of Olathe East, hasn't seen the film but says the filmmakers were professional and dutiful while in his building. "We set up some parameters for what they could and couldn't do," he says. He adds that Peter wasn't the only Sudanese refugee at Olathe East when filming took place -- something the filmmakers don't let us in on; several scenes show Peter's black face alone in a hallway full of white people.

The film focuses on the journey made by members of the cattle-herding Dinka tribe, one target of Islamic fundamentalists who have killed 2 million people in twenty years of civil war in Sudan. After his parents' slaughter, Peter and hundreds of others eventually wind up safe in Kenya. America is the ultimate destination, though, based on an elder's speculation: "We've heard America is a good place."

Before their departure in August 2001, the Dinkas receive instructions on how to be American -- a lesson in basketball is taught not on a court but from a picture book -- yet not too American. Says one older man, "Don't act like those who wear the baggy jeans." Just a few months after their arrival, though, they're wearing Sean John T-shirts and watching MTV's spring-break coverage.

Though it's not overly blunt, the film makes it clear that well-intentioned Americans frequently misunderstand or ignore the fact that culture is defined by nuance. For example, Peter and his friends dissect how their comfort in touching other men -- common practice in the Dinka tribe -- won't fly in America because they'll be perceived as gay. "Leave Africa in Africa," one of the boys says, a sentiment that is both logical and sad. Peter says his supervisor at a local Wal-Mart expressed no qualms about giving him parking-lot detail, saying, "Since you're from Africa, you're used to the heat." At one gathering of evangelical kids in Olathe, a local boy responds to Peter's "I'm from Sudan" with "That's awesome. Do you play soccer?"

The film is an unforgiving mirror for Americans to see their reflections.

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