Courtesy of NEON
An unnerving drama that plays like a potboiler thriller, “Luce” tackles inherent themes surrounding race, gender, and class. A film in which each character seems to harbor a secret, strikes a relevant chord in the face of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements.
The third feature from Nigerian-American filmmakers Julius Onah, “Luce” asks bold questions regarding our own perceptions and values when it comes to other cultures in shocking succession. The central character is African-American teenager Luce Edgar, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr in a star-is-born performance, whose quiet presence and vocal inflection is something worth appreciating.
Luce has advantages that many of his African-American peers do not: the benefit of the doubt. Aided in part by his slick athletic abilities, but also because he’s a model, straight A student about to become valedictorian. Considering, ten years prior, Luce was an abused, gun wielding soldier for a warlord in Eritrea, these accomplishments are all the more impressive. It wasn’t easy raising him, yet his adoptive white parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) have given him the privilege and tools to succeed where others haven’t, and Luce deserves credit for taking every opportunity afforded to him while carving out his own identity.
However, when his model student status is put in question by his history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer delivering an Oscar worthy performance) tension arise. Concerned by a paper he wrote that touches on violent political context, followed by a raid in his locker that turns up illegal fireworks, Mrs. Wilson believes Luce is hiding something. Of course, there should be a reasonable explanation and Amy does whatever she can to see the good in Luce always.
Looking at Onah’s most recent film, the straight-to-Netflix burnout “The Cloverfield Paradox” - you could tell the filmmaker, perhaps, was limited by the constraints of a big studio picture. Whereas in “Luce,” the director is able to explore many different themes and expose the prejudices that hide in our society each day (themes and motifs that could’ve made “Paradox” a touch more intriguing). Onah shows great strength in his camera work and angles, specifically in the showdowns between Luce and his parents where both Amy and Peter have to choose a side. He also lets the shots linger on longer than expected, letting the audience feel the weight of these circumstances, allowing Harrison Jr’s emotionally gripping monologues to burden some of the heavy lifting.
In retrospect, this was written as a stage play, and certain talky elements seem as though they could play better in that element, but Onah (along with screenwriter J.C. Lee who wrote the play) strategically stages this psychodrama in the lens of a suspenseful thriller in an effort to counteract some of the slower moments. Yet the more Luce’s behavior starts to suggest something deeper is at stake here (again, Harrison Jr is excellent in finding the balance between innocence and guilt) Onah starts asking the real questions about Luce’s identity and his need to live up to the school and his parents' expectations.
Peering through the eyes of African-American culture through Luce provides a rich subtext that fuel many of the harrowing face-offs between himself and Ms. Wilson. Think of those like a battle of wits (after all, Luce is the captain of the debate team) except the nuance and implications are far more revealing than a simple after school conversation would warrant. In one harrowing sequence, Luce explains to Mrs. Wilson how Independence Day is his favorite holiday and it’s one of the most unforgettable movie moments of 2019.
The film takes many of the characters on a roller coaster of ideologies, and giving Watts and Roth some of their best work in years. They each go through a borderline traumatizing arch that reaches peak levels in a climactic sit down between Luce, Mrs. Wilson, and the principle of the school discussing serious accusations of character. The suspense is warranted as the school desperately wants their star pupil to succeed, but at the same time Mrs. Wilson wants her own justice (and suspicions) vindicated.
Though some of the films lofty themes are wide open for interpretation, “Luce” is still a brave and audaciously riveting cinematic experience that’ll find longevity in the conversation it starts regarding stereotypes and the judgement brought upon others. If we can at least acknowledge the evident bias associated with class, maybe, just maybe, we can start to see the world through Luce’s perspective.
Luce is currently playing at The Main Art Theater in Royal Oak and opens August 23rd at The Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.