Luce is a quiet stunner, ready to unnerve you in unexpected ways. That’s not to say it’s any kind of conventional thriller, using cheap scares for entertainment effect. Luce is much smarter than that. It rests upon topical conversations the characters have and analyzes how there’s no one answer to anything in this world. Luce’s lack of clarity is what makes it so unsettling. It does what any good movie should – it starts a conversation, which continues long after you’ve exited the theater. Much more impressively, it doesn’t dictate the response an audience should have and invites itself to burrow into your mind, without any chance of leaving.
Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) are a middle-class couple, who adopted their son Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from war-torn Eritrea when he was just seven years old. At such a young age, Luce saw and absorbed things most people should never see, but Amy and Peter were determined to provide a safe home filled with love and trust for him. As the movie opens, Luce is a senior in high school, and everything seems idyllic in their household, but Amy treats their relationship with a certain level of fragility because it took so long to build their relationship with Luce.
“…Luce saw and absorbed things most people should never see…”
As a high schooler, Luce is the model student: good grades, a track star, member of the debate club and popular. He has a million-dollar smile that most administrators want representing their schools at all functions, which makes Luce the perfect poster child for his high school and treated like a king by the school’s principal. This kind of attention can make any young person feel invincible or collapse under the pressure, and it’s interesting how the movie toggles between exploring both sides.
Luce faces added pressure from his teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who has the same vision of Luce as the rest of the school. Mrs. Wilson is a bit different than the rest, however, because she isn’t afraid to call attention to a paper Luce wrote for her class that suggests differences can be solved through violence. She calls Amy in for a discussion about the paper, which seems like a simple misunderstanding, but are heightened by the fact she found illegal fireworks in Luce’s locker.
Luce has a lot on its mind but never feels overstuffed or unable to handle of the topics at hand. As a social drama, director Julius Onah and writer J.C. Lee (adapted his play of the same name), keep things moving at a swift pace, finding new avenues to explore race, social class and the pressure both can accrue for someone trying to shape their identity.
“…all feel they know what’s best for Luce but have different ways of addressing it.”
Watts, Roth and especially Spencer all deliver some of their best recent work, somehow operating on opposite sides of the same issue. They all feel they know what’s best for Luce but have different ways of addressing it. Harrison Jr. delivers a take-notice performance as the title character, caught between trying to please everyone and pleasing no one. He struggles with the commoditization of his talents and the pressure that comes with such expectations and Harrison Jr. captures a character caught in the middle. Everyone thinks Luce might be perfect but how could that even be?
The last act of Luce flirts with melodrama, which feels unnecessary because everything before it feels so natural and reflective of conversations we are – or should be – having today. Onah doesn’t lean too heavily into the histrionics and continues to focus on the ever-changing characters. Throughout the movie, allegiances will shift and trust and motivations will be questioned. You may leave Luce with unanswered questions but that’s kind of the point.
Luce (2019) Directed by Julius Onah. Written by J.C. Lee. Starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Octavia Spencer.
8 out of 10