Luce is a complicated movie for a difficult time in America. In this moment when racism and class warfare is being stoked at every turn, the film weaves a complex social thriller in which those issues are right at the forefront, forcing the viewer to confront their own prejudices in a way that is both uncomfortable and beneficial. There’s nothing easy about Luce, and it’s an altogether better movie for being that way.
Directed by Julius Onah, showing none of the sloppiness that plagued his The Cloverfield Paradox a year ago, Luce features a breakout role by Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the title character. The film begins with a teenaged Luce, a standout student and athlete at an elite private school, giving a speech to the assembled students, parents, and faculty. Through his beaming smile, Luce encourages the students to be grateful to their parents for the values bestowed upon them. It’s corny like most high school speeches are, but it seems genuine. The place lights up with applause and smiles. All except from teacher Ms. Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who looks like she has a bad taste in her mouth.
Luce’s Caucasian parents Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth) are delighted with their son. A black kid they adopted from a warzone, and may have actually been a child soldier, Luce has grown into an exemplary man that everyone likes. But Ms. Wilson sees him differently. An assignment in which Luce writes in the voice of incendiary revolutionary Frantz Fanon draws her suspicion, as does his association with a suspended teammate. Using her authority, Wilson inspects Luce’s locker and finds illegal fireworks. While she could’ve confronted Luce directly, she goes straight to his parents, sewing discord within the family.
In less skilled hands, Luce could stumble into reinforcing stereotypes rather than examining perceptions of them. But Onah, who co-wrote the script with J.C. Lee (based on Lee’s play), stays free of any judgment, keeping the actions taken by all parties as ambiguous as possible. One could rightfully argue in Luce’s favor, that he is being stereotyped by a black teacher who has a prejudice against her own kind. Or one could see him as a black kid who is smart enough to take advantage of the privilege he has earned by deceiving others. On the other hand, Wilson’s actions could be seen as justified given this country’s history of violence in its schools, or perhaps they’re colored by revealed problems she is having personally. There’s also the effect this has on Luce’s parents, who are forced to confront their son’s race for, perhaps, the first time. They have no idea of the pressures Luce faces as a black man given such privileges, with some seeing him as a sell-out, others as a failure waiting to happen, and still more who burden him with impossible expectations. And that ignorance of who Luce is keeps his parents off-balance, but us as well.
I call this a breakout role for Harrison but in truth, he has been on quite the roll with performances in It Comes at Night, Monsters and Men, Mudbound, JT Leroy, and Assassination Nation. As Luce, he gives a quietly confident performance, more than up to the standard of his Oscar-caliber co-stars. We’ve come to expect excellence from Spencer, Watts, and Roth, and they do not disappoint, but there are other supporting roles that prove crucial, including Andrea Bang as Luce’s ex-girlfriend Stephanie, who gets swept up in Wilson’s accusations. Norbert Leo Butz is terrific in a small role as the adoring school principal, pulled into the middle of this powder keg.
Onah has bounced back and positioned himself as a director to keep a close eye on, proving he can handle weighty subjects and make a movie that people will be discussing long after it’s over. Luce is one of the most compelling and vital movies of the year and simply demands to be seen.