What started as a 2013 stage play by J.C. Lee has become a thought-provoking psychodrama by director and co-writer Julius Onah (“The Cloverfield Paradox”).
Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play Amy and Peter Edgar, the adoptive white parents of black teenager Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an exceptional student and athlete who grew up in war-torn Eritrea.
Seen by many as a role model, Luce struggles with his identity, especially the push to make him the poster child for black excellence by his teachers, which includes the stern Harriet Wilson played by Octavia Spencer. “Luce” is a well-crafted enigma that forces you to reexamine your POV as the complex story unfolds.
According to Principal Dan Towson (Norbert Leo Butz), “If you googled ‘Model Student,’ a picture of Luce Edwards would come up on the computer.” Still, Harriet Wilson (Spencer) is distressed about her exemplary student who’s on track to become valedictorian. She’s raised concerns with the principal after Luce wrote a paper on anti-colonial cultural theorist, Frantz Fanon, a historical figure he admires, who advocated violence in his 1961 book “The Wretched of the Earth.”
Given the history of Luce’s past, he was trained as a boy soldier before being adopted, Harriet searches Luce’s locker and discovers a stash of illegal fireworks. Fearing this could lead to a terrorist attack she calls his parents in for a conference. I should point out this is before going to Principal Dan as Harriet tries to keep the incident on the down-low.
Naomi Watts delivers a natural performance as defensive mom Amy but dad Peter (Roth) is a little more skeptical, although he keeps his uncertainty shielded from Harriet and backs his wife at the meeting.
From here “Luce” takes a slippery slope trajectory as tension mounts and friction between Amy, Peter, and Luce accelerates. The audience begins to question their assumptions as suspicions are raised. Luce claims those aren’t his fireworks and that Harriet has something against him. Spencer, operating in “I’m about to turn into MA mode” is seen as a protector who recognizes the gravity of Luce’s image as a role model for the black community.
One minute she’s trying to protect him but the next it feels like she’s on a mission to bring him down. And then there’s Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s powerful performance as Luce whose wicked smile proclaims there may be more to this complex character.
Onah’s adaptation of Lee’s off-Broadway play brims with ambiguity as it forces the audience to reexamine its perspective while engaging with these vivid characters. There is no clear-cut right or wrong as we watch Luce, his parents, his friends, Harriet, and even Principal Dan navigate through a gray area, each pushing their own agenda.
A power struggle ensues between Luce and Harriet as ethics are questioned while dealing with race and gender. The score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (“Annihilation,” “Ex Machina”) heightens the film’s menacing overtone while Larkin Seiple’s roving camera captures the drama from various angles much like the “This Is America” video he shot for Childish Gambino.
That song, by the way, could have been incorporated into the film with lyrics “This is America, don’t catch you slippin' up, look what I'm whippin' up.”
Kelvin Harrison Jr. delivers a breakthrough performance as Luce which is why the film works so well, despite the first-rate performances by Watts, Spencer, and Roth. In the end, you may walk away feeling unsatisfied by the conclusion but compensated by the fact that you are still trying to figure out why you simply can’t identify with just one of these characters.
(3 ½ stars)