Movie Review – Luce

Luce (2019)
Written by J.C. Lee and Julius Onah
Directed by Julius Onah

Luce is a difficult movie to wrap my head around. In some moments, it reminds me of the tense ping-pong of dialogue in David Mamet’s work. In others, it is very close to being a cheesy Netflix original. The film brings up troublesome topics that are worth examination, like how black young people navigate the constant sea of labels being tossed their way. But then it will go down a dark road, implying that young women who say they were sexually assaulted might be lying and have a duplicitous agenda. Helping to elevate Luce even in the worst moments is an S-tier cast: Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr.

Luce is a black high school, adopted at age ten by a nice white couple who were concerned about African child soldiers. He’s now the jewel of his administrators’ eyes, the sort of black student they wish they all could be. He speaks like a white person, presents himself in a white context, yet still indulges their need to have a token present. Things take an interesting turn when his history teacher, Mrs. Wilson, an African-American woman, becomes concerned over a writing assignment.

Students were asked to write in the voice of a historical figure, and Luce chose Frantz Fanon, an anti-colonialist revolutionary. Mrs. Wilson searches Luce’s locker without permission and finds a bag of illegal fireworks. She assumes these indicate malicious intentions on her student’s part. Luce’s parents, Amy and Peter, are conflicted between defending their child and acknowledge some longheld misgivings they’ve had since adopting Luce.

If the film has tightened up the script and focused purely on the psychological conflict between Luce and his parents, this could have been something phenomenal. Instead, the story meanders in bringing up a host of other issues. Wilson’s drug addict sister is brought into the plot, looking at the teacher’s own personal prejudices about her own race. In another context, this story could be brilliant, looking at the way some African-American communities refuse to acknowledge drug use as an illness and instead frame it as “those black people ruining our image.” But the movie is doing so much it never manages to make a complete thought.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is doing great work with some subpar material. The story doesn’t quite know what it wants him to be, and there’s a silly veneer of psychological thriller thrown over the whole affair. It feels like the director wanted to make something adjacent to Get Out, but doesn’t have a hold a single thread of an idea. You needed that one core question and for the picture to follow that thread to its natural conclusion, whether it offers a conclusive answer or leaves us with ambiguity.

Luce started as a stage play, and I am left wondering how it plays out in that contained space. I suspect the story feels a little tighter, and the cast isn’t quite so sprawling. The biggest problem is that the script will often want to play up Luce as an insidious mastermind but then try to tell the audience they are wrong for thinking poorly of the character. It’s hard to not when the film so intently wants that psychological thriller label placed on it. It’s definitely worth a watch but only exists a few steps above something like 13 Reasons Why, mainly because of that stellar cast.

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