Review: ‘Luce’

Luce | Julius Onah | August 2, 2019

There are no easy clear-cut answers in Luce, a timely psychodrama from director Julius Onah, which takes a good hard look at issues of race, expectations, and perception vs. reality of the truth, which can bend or break depending if it’s swaying the way we want it to.

When we first meet the titular Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), he’s just given a riveting speech at his high school to the delight of his proud parents Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts & Tim Roth). They should be proud, as they adopted him when he was just a small child from war-torn Eritrea and helped raise him as a model citizen and student, the sort whose image would come up if you Googled model student, according to his principal (Norbert Leo Butz). He’s a star student and athlete, impressing everyone around him, except for his teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer).

Luce still - the family

She is troubled by his response to an assignment where he seems to align himself with the violent thinkings of Franz Fanon. Her suspicions are raised when she goes through his locker and takes it upon herself to reach out to his parents about her concerns. They immediately doubt what she tells them, not believing for an instant that their son – who they worked so hard to raise – could be someone else completely based on the suggestions of a teacher who seems to have a personal vendetta against him. Amy and Peter want to believe their son, but as the story progresses, they become less than sure about how well they know him and are left with some difficult decisions.

To go deeper than that would ruin the fun of the journey that is Luce, a film that is gripping, unsettling, and surprising, keeping you very much on your toes throughout its well-paced runtime. Even at the end, it poses questions without giving you all the answers, allowing the actions and choices to sit with you and allow you to come up with your own perceptions, just like many of the characters have to contemplate – mainly Amy, who is constantly wrestling with how well she actually knows her own son.

Written by J.C. Lee based on his play of the same name, Luce tackles the relevant topic of race in a way that is thought-provoking, shocking, and never easy. Luce is a black teenager raised by two well-off white parents, which causes him to be treated differently than other black kids at his school. He is held to a higher standard than them but it also comes with a different set of expectations that cause him to struggle to be the person he wants to be and needs to be in the eyes of all those around him.

Luce still - Luce with his mom and teacher

As is the case often when a play is brought to life on the big screen, not all of it translates in the same way. Some scenes are bit over-written, biting off a bit more than they can chew and causing some uncertainty here and there. Onah and cinematographer Larkin Seiple try to stay true to the stage origins of the material, never relying on cinematic camera tricks, rather allowing the haunting score from the composing team of Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow (Annihilation, Ex Machina, Free Fire) to bring the story to a heightened level of cinematic intensity.

It’s hard to imagine any of it working at all without the lead performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr., who truly arrives with this outstanding lead performance. He is equal parts charming and sinister, floating somewhere between the two whenever it calls for it. He burst onto many radars in 2017 with It Comes at Night but it’s his performance in Luce that will be his true breakout performance, one that is surely deserving come awards discussion later this year. Of course, Octavia Spencer matches his performance, as do Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, who provide some great moments as his parents that always feel raw and honest and very much lived-in.

Realistically, Luce is a film that calls for subsequent viewings to truly get all of the answers but even then, the whole point is to allow each viewer to come to their own conclusions based on their own realities and points of view, even at the risk of possible misinterpretation. Onah and Lee never stop the tension from rising and there’s not a second to really breathe easy or rest assured, not even upon completion.

Rating: 8.1/10

Luce premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and is being released domestically by Neon.