Movie Review: Luce
By Matthew Huntley
August 25, 2019
“Luce” is a film that is deliberately not simple. We know it; the filmmakers know it. It’s the type of film one cannot fully process while watching it or even shortly thereafter. It takes about a day and a good night’s sleep to consider everything it puts on the table, and even then, it leaves us wondering and wrestling with our own conclusions. This is also why “Luce” is a prime example of a conversation starter—its themes and messages are, by their nature, open to interpretation and different for everyone. And what makes it even more exceptional is the conversation(s) it sparks is not the type anyone necessarily wants to have, even though we know we should if we are to begin to understand someone else’s point of view towards its subjects.
I went into “Luce” not knowing much about it, except that it centered around a black kid who’s persecuted at school. If this turned out to be the only thing it was about, it might not have amounted to anything terribly new, but one of the ways “Luce,” directed by Julius Onah and written by J.C. Lee, who adapted his own play, keeps us so tightly wound and engaged is by relentlessly peeling back more narrative and dramatic layers. Its plot perpetually thickens, and just when you think it’s going to allow time for the audience to breathe, it digs deeper.
Onah and Lee put it on the audience to not only keep up with the story’s ongoing developments but also to accept the fact it’s going to leave us feeling uncomfortable and without that satisfying sense that justice was served and that all the conflicts were resolved. And even though part of us wants the film to “apologize” for this and show mercy, we’re better off that it doesn’t, because we need to hear what it has to say and remember that life isn’t so simple and neat.
How intently we listen to “Luce” depends on the strength of the performances and not knowing what to expect from the plot. Regarding the former, the acting is top-notch and the cast exhibits the type of grace and control that makes us believe they’ve really thought about the significance of this material and are up to the challenge of realizing it. It’s not just another gig to them, but the type of work they likely consider essential viewing and likely always will be.
As for the plot, I’ll be careful not to reveal too much, but it does, in fact, center around a black kid who suddenly finds himself the victim of discrimination and suspicion. He’s a high school senior named Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and the soon-to-be valedictorian of his class. He’s also the adopted son of Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), a well-to-do white couple who brought Luce over from Eritrea when he was eight-years-old. They speak candidly about the difficulties surrounding Luce’s transition to American life, venting about the inevitable hardships they and Luce endured, including the language barrier. But they also speak proudly about how Luce prevailed and that he’s now a straight-A student, leader of the debate team and captain of the track and field squad. “If you Googled the words ‘model student,’” Principal Towson (Norbet Leo Butz) says, “Luce’s picture would come up.”
No one has ever really doubted Luce’s academic, athletic or civil integrity, but his history teacher, Miss Wilson (Octavia Spencer), does have concerns about what might exist underneath Luce’s “model student” veil. One day she calls Amy into her office and shows her a disturbing essay Luce wrote that might suggest he shares the same extremist principles as a pan-Africanist philosopher who believed violence is the means to liberate those suffering from discrimination. What’s more is that Miss Wilson, without proper authority, searched Luce’s locker and found explosive fireworks.
Is there more to Luce than meets the eye? What might he be hiding? Is there a darkness brewing inside him that he masks with good grades and inspiring speeches?
These are the obvious questions Onah and Lee want us to ask during “Luce,” and these alone are enough to make it a serviceable drama and thriller, but the ambitious storytellers take things further and push our intellectual and emotional buttons even more. One of the ways they accomplish this is by not making Luce the only character of interest. This is not just his story and ample screen time has also been allotted to Miss Wilson, Amy, and Peter, although probably not enough for the latter. The film gives these supporting characters time to develop and become more human and complicated as the overall tension mounts.
Miss Wilson initially comes across as a stern, gloomy, villainous type—angry, lonely, set in her ways. We first see her as someone who overreaches and feels the normal rules of authority don’t apply to her. But just like Luce, there’s more to her and she’s not just strict and punitive because she can be, but because, perhaps, her personal life has left her shaken and scarred to the point where she can only manage her sadness by inflicting discipline on her students. She has a mentally ill sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who requires the kind of care and attention Miss Wilson simply can’t provide and has grown exhausted trying. She therefore devotes all her time to the school because she’s desperate to be a positive influence in some way, and teaching, shaping and controlling adolescents, especially black ones, makes her feel capable and in control.
Amy also finds solace in her career as a pediatrician, so when Miss Wilson presents her with the possibility Luce might be some kind of threat, it’s clear she doesn’t know where to turn and becomes increasingly reactionary and frantic. She reaches out to Luce’s classmate Stephanie (Andrea Bang) for answers and is shocked when Stephanie tells her she and Luce dated. What else Stephanie reveals, I’ll let you discover, but the news isn’t easy for Amy to hear and it paradoxically gives her relief while also making her more uncertain about her son.
Peter is unfortunately not as fleshed out as the other characters, which is a shame since Tim Roth has such a strong screen presence. He isn’t given as many individual scenes and we really only see Peter from one side, although, to be fair, it’s a compelling side because it shows Peter has pent up anger and the recent accusation toward Luce causes old wounds between him and Amy to resurface. We appreciate the film taking the time to dismantle Peter and Amy’s marriage somewhat and show they’re more than just a yuppie white couple. Their affluence and upper-class status has not necessarily made them happy.
One aspect of the story that’s no so well relayed is the idea of just how difficult it is for a white couple to raise a refugee African child. Sure, the characters speak of it, but it’s all in their past, and a palpable sense of such a lofty and arduous undertaking is never quite felt, which seemed necessary because it plays such an integral part in the characters’ lives. I’m not sure a flashback would have helped, but this subject deserved more attention than just dialogue.
I also couldn’t quite accept a scene late in the film that takes place between Luce and his family and Miss Wilson and the principal. It had an air of staginess and there comes a point when one character makes a crucial decision that seemed too haste and non-credible for an otherwise complex and grounded screenplay, just so it could start to tie up the plot threads. It’s as if the story had worn itself out that it didn’t have enough energy left to see its bold ambitions all the way through.
Still, despite “Luce” not being entirely sound, I admire its vow to not settle for easy answers or crowd-pleasing conclusions. We leave the film shaken, confounded, emotionally touched, somewhat angry, and morally torn. Onah and Lee know the material isn’t the kind that renders universally agreed upon interpretation. Its issues are multi-faceted and the kind a Hollywood film can only bring up but never fully address or even make sense of, even though we wish it could. However, the fact that “Luce” does bring them up but remains smart enough not to suggest clear-cut answers, while still managing to stir us with its drama and performances, speaks to its value.