Review: Who is ‘Luce’? Kelvin Harrison Jr. gives a compelling answer in a twisty race drama
A cruel story of youth, race and the politics of respectability, “Luce” grows out of a conflict between a high school history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), and one of her star pupils, Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).
Harriet has a will of steel and a nose for trouble; Luce has a dark past and a bright future. The trouble begins, or so it would seem, with a homework assignment. Instructed to write a paper from the perspective of a historical figure, Luce adopts the controversial voice of the pan-Africanist philosopher Frantz Fanon, echoing his ideas about the savagery of colonialism and the necessity of revolutionary violence.
Luce himself was once one of Fanon’s so-called wretched of the Earth. Formerly a child soldier in war-ravaged Eritrea, he was adopted at age 10 by Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), a Virginia couple with a nice house and unimpeachably good intentions. Their devotion to their son is apparent in their easy, affectionate family banter, and also in the character of Luce himself. To look at him today — an academic and athletic star, handsome, popular and disarmingly suave — you wouldn’t guess that he has lived through a hell that few of his peers could imagine.
That’s very much to the point of this coolly analytical and absorbing movie, a point that Luce himself articulates: “You never really know what’s going on with people.” But if “Luce” is partly about how appearances can be deceiving, it is also about how expectations can be terribly damaging. Everyone expects greatness from Luce, and he hasn’t disappointed them so far. (At one point, a character jokingly likens him to President Obama.) But beneath the weight of so much pressure we can sense the barely stifled cry of a soul in extremis.
The purpose of that writing assignment, Harriet says, was to encourage her students “to think outside the box.” That idea will be revisited a bit too tidily later, when she and Luce fiercely debate a different kind of box, namely the tight, unforgiving mold that society has carved out for him and other young black men. The director, Julius Onah, plays with the image of a box more than once in the establishing shots of Luce’s school, a rectangular building with darkened windows, and also in the rows of student lockers that figure into the plot.
Unnerved by Luce’s Fanon paper, Harriet takes it upon herself to search his locker and finds a paper bag full of fireworks, which she promptly hands over to a shocked Amy, warning her to keep her son on the straight and narrow. Harriet’s actions would seem to defy plausibility as well as protocol, a flaw that is offset somewhat by the unflinching authority and determination in Spencer’s gaze. Effective as she was at terrorizing teenagers in the recent “Ma,” she’s both scarier and much more human here, turning even compliments and pleasantries into verbal weapons and mustering the full weight of history itself in her defense.
What makes Harriet’s stance so compelling is that she sees Luce as both a threat to be neutralized and a promise to be fulfilled. A young man so rich in real and symbolic potential — an African immigrant who survived a war zone and processed his trauma to become a shining American success story — must be protected and uplifted at any cost. But there are few things that children can really be protected from, suspicion perhaps least of all. And suspicion soon sweeps through the halls of the school — casting shadows over two other classmates, Stephanie (Andrea Bang) and DeShaun (Astro), who dwell unhappily in the margins — and into the rooms of Luce’s home, poisoning even Amy and Peter’s goodwill as they struggle to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Recognizably but intelligently adapted from a play by JC Lee (who wrote the script with Onah), “Luce” is a neatly constructed puzzle, an engrossing weave of suburban drama and sociopolitical whodunit. It is also, unapologetically, a thesis movie, in which even small talk has a way of accelerating into discourse. Onah, rebounding nicely from the B-movie hackwork of last year’s “The Cloverfield Paradox,” neither embraces nor disguises the material’s stage foundations. He builds every scene with clear, deliberate forethought but also a commitment to low-key realism, filling the frame with lived-in details and long shadows. (The 35-millimeter cinematography is by Larkin Seiple.)
Onah’s cool tone and spare aesthetic choices — among them an ominously percussive score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury — give the material some of the creepy, insinuating menace of Michael Haneke, the Austrian director known for his ruthless eviscerations of privileged, educated white liberals (including the ones who regularly flock to his movies). The fact that Watts and Roth previously played a clueless suburban couple in Haneke’s 2008 shocker “Funny Games” is surely no coincidence, and their characters’ spluttering anger and confusion here is as sympathetic as it is subtly damning.
Whether or not Luce owns the illegal explosives — and if so, what he might have been planning to do with them — becomes the source of much suspense and uncertainty. And Harrison’s performance, at once slippery and surgically precise, compounds that ambiguity in ingenious fashion. He exhibits a quality that might have seemed like mere self-consciousness in a different actor’s hands — at every moment, Luce seems to be trying to calibrate the best, most presentable version of himself — and making it one with the character’s subtext.
Does something sinister lurk beneath Luce’s charming smiles and those stirring, silver-tongued speeches he is regularly called on to deliver at school assemblies? Is he a dangerous, tormented individual who has mastered the tricky art of code switching to a near-sociopathic degree? Or is this all just a big misunderstanding — an unfortunate product of the fact that he and his less enviable, less privileged friends share lockers? And if so, does that really make the situation any better, so long as the right people remain blameless and the right ones are punished?
Luce makes a natural conduit for Lee and Onah’s sharp ideas about the limitations of tokenism and the moral bankruptcy of prioritizing optics over human lives. But he is also the center around which the movie constructs an ever-expanding and increasingly flimsy house of rhetorical cards, barely held together by topical nods to school security, mental illness, sexual assault and teen privacy in the social media age. “Luce” has a lot on its mind, and its desire to provoke and disturb is far from unwelcome. But in attempting to think outside the box, the movie may unwittingly trap itself inside one, too.
As Luce insists, he doesn’t want to be reduced to either a stereotype or an exception to the stereotype. (Or, to use the recent formulation of a presidential candidate, he doesn’t want to be either “a gangbanger” or “the next poet laureate.”) But as admirably complicated and contradictory a figure as he may be, he cannot easily shrug off the heavy symbolic weight that the movie ends up saddling him with. Until the climactic moment when the earnest, defiant smile-mask finally slips, he often seems less a person than a puzzle — an emblem of ambiguity, a devil’s advocate for every occasion, a problem that cannot be solved.
Rating: R, for language throughout, sexual content, nudity and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 2 at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles
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