Amy and Peter Edgar(Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) adopted a ten-year old boy from war-torn Eritrea. Their adopted son proved to be a star athlete and budding intellect – until his teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), makes a shocking discovery about “Luce.”
Based on the play and adapted to the screen by J.C. Lee (with director Julius Onah), the story centers on the remarkable young man, Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who, in a few short years, rose from being a refugee to the level of honor, both intellectually and athletically.
Luce’s response to a class assignment from Mrs., Wilson – write a paper using the voice of a historical figure. Luce’s choice – West Indies revolutionary Franz Fanon – with his violent rhetoric against oppression, raises a red flag for his teacher. This prompts Wilson to do a pre-emptive search of Luce’s school locker. What she finds prompts the controversy that will shake the Edgar family to its very foundation of love and trust.
Sharing Luce’s spotlight is Naomi Watts as his fiercely devoted mom, Amy, who, despite some doubts, stands by her son. Tim Roth fares less well as Luce’s doubting father, who seems too willing to side against him. Octavia Spencer does yeoman’s duty as Harriet Wilson, whose character is given more nuance and sympathy when her mentally ill sister, Rosemary, intrudes, again, in her life. Marsha Stephanie Blake gives a powerful, and notable, performance as Rose.
Misunderstanding and suspicion of those different from us colors the story of “Luce,” which, I feel, is endemic in our society, right now. I give it a B.
White liberal professionals Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth) couldn't be prouder of the boy they rescued from life as a child soldier in Eritrea. Ten years after his adoption, the high school senior is a beloved football star and scholastic achiever. But when his teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) is disturbed by the assignment he's written from the perspective of a 20th century historical figure, then searches his locker and finds illegal fireworks, everything about his identity comes into question for "Luce."
Adapted from his stage play by J.C. Lee and Nigerian director Julius Onah ("The Cloverfield Paradox"), "Luce" packs in an awful lot of issues - white liberal saviorhood, cultural identity, black assimilation, victimhood, mental illness shaming, sexual assault - in a psychological thriller which invites debate and introspection rather than providing pat answers. "It Comes at Night's" Kelvin Harrison Jr. expands on the inscrutability of that role, here presenting different personas to his adoptive parents, school officials, high school subcultures and the ex-girlfriend he professes to protect until we doubt whether even Luce knows who he is.
Onah applied some of his own experience moving to Arlington, Virginia, where he's set this film. While we can still sense its roots on the stage (the film is reminiscent of David Mamet's 'Oleanna' yet casts a much wider net), the movie's been nestled within muted middle class suburbia where everything is bland and tasteful on the surface, much like Luce. But look a little closer and there is tension everywhere. Peter Edgar resents the years of therapy invested, regarding his son as a political project. The school principal Dan Towson (Norbert Leo Butz) is more interested in flaunting an immigrant student success story than supporting a teacher with decades of good standing. That teacher, Harriet Walker, has issues with her own race, dealing harshly with students she regards as falling into black stereotypes, like DeShaun Meeks (Astro, "A Walk Among the Tombstones"), a kid whose future was destroyed when she searched *his* locker. She also has a conflicted relationship with her mentally ill sister Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake, memorable). Then there's Luce's relationship with ex-girlfriend Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang), a relationship his mother only finds out about when she gets the girl to agree to meet her to discuss Harriet Walker, as Luce had pointed to Kim as another student inappropriately singled out by the teacher. Luce also has to look inward when he's accused by DeShaun of socializing with white students, like Kenny Orlicki (Noah Gaynor), in public, but those like him - 'black, black' in Orlicki's parlance - in private.
So, does Luce believe political revolution should be accompanied by violence? Is he the one who wrote racially charged graffiti on Miss Walker's home? Were the fireworks his? And just what happened to Stephanie Kim, who tells Amy Edgars about getting drunk at a party and being passed around yet denies Luce had anything to do with it and cannot explain why they broke up? Is Luce sincere when he shows his
parents video of Rosemary's breakdown on school property, expressing sympathy for the unknown life of his teacher? Are Harriet's accusations explained by mental illness running in her family?
Lee and Onah don't provide any answers, instead adding even more layers to their puzzle. Yet the characters we meet at the beginning of their film have changed by its end, Amy Edgars no longer sure of anything, Harriet Walker collateral damage and Luce himself running off an inner rage hidden while giving the speech he'd been working on throughout about achieving dreams in America.
The film would have benefitted from a sharper focus, Stephanie Kim's story splintering off into too many additional issues, the Edgars too much a divided front at the onset, but "Luce" has the complexity to present multiple, interconnected issues and look at them from various perspectives while also entertaining as a genre film.
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