Starring Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Tim Roth
The events taking place in “Luce" are the kind that are likely to generate a multitude of discussion and debate. J.C. Lee’s play turned screenplay is a riveting exploration into the social, physiological, and racial discussions currently being had in our society, albeit from a different perspective. However, it’s difficult to absorb entirely what “Luce” is trying to explore while director Julius Onah winds you into a knot with extreme tension and suspense. Audiences will be more concerned with “what happens next?” or “how does this end?” than how it makes them feel. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (“Ma”) turns in one more excellent performance. Each scene shared between Spencer and Kelvin Harrison (“It Comes at Night”) is the unsettling pulse of the film.
Adopted at age seven from the violent, war-torn Eritrea, Luce (Harrison) has grown up with wealth and privilege at the hands of his adoptive parents Amy (Watts) and Peter Edgar (Roth). In fact, he’s become the model student, excelling in virtually every subject, heading the debate team, a track star and a leader on the football field. His star status comes into question though when an over sensitive history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Spencer), raises alarms at an assignment he turned in. Combined with something unsettling found in his locker, Wilson confronts the parents. The Edgar’s wave their son’s success like a banner of achievement as proof that he can do no wrong. Is it all a misunderstanding, miscommunication, or is a child raised among violence and killing from his early childhood, predisposed to violence, and no amount of therapy can wash it away?
“What happens next” or “how does it end” is at the forefront of “Luce” instead of how we feel or proceed with the difficult and opposing set of circumstances.
The trailer for “Luce” advertises a thriller, but the pacing of J.C. Lee’s is tepid. I think this pace is intentional and meant to get under the viewer's skin. Varying perspectives allow us to see many of the circumstances from alternate points of view. It becomes very clear that Luce is smarter than all the adults around him, a fact pointed out by the principal (Norbert Leo Butz). The same can be said for Lee’s insights and the correlation between what’s being portrayed in this particular story, to society at large. The man behind the story is slightly more intelligent than the bulk of the target audience which could also make for a frustrating experience if “how does this end” is all you’re focused on. The film's ambiguity is partly a strength, but mainstream audiences won’t see it that way.
“What if you are part of the what I need protecting from,” might be the most bone-chilling sentenced uttered in a film with some pretty eye-opening conversations. “Luce” hits hard and deep, especially for the parental viewers, embodied by Watts and Roth’s realistic and relatable parents who are trying to do the right thing. Watts gets to drive the plot along, literally in a few scenes, reminding us of her credibility when she's cast in the right roles. Onah doesn’t seem to be reaching for cinematic greatness. Instead, he understands the power of Lee’s creative storytelling and rests the entire film on the actor's shoulders, actors who deliver for the most part.
Often too smart for it’s own good, Luce is a riveting example of a genre film packed with emotional context and great performances.