Luce is the most tightly written drama to hit the screens in 2019, presenting the audience with a number of characters stuck in moral dilemmas without easy answers.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the titular African-American boy, adopted by upper-middle-class white couple Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth). Luce is a prodigious student, athlete and debate champion, in many ways the star of his high school. But Luce (may) have a dark side, revealed to Amy when Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), Luce’s teacher, reveals that he wrote a “historical figure” essay from the perspective of a violent revolutionary. Given that Luce was raised as a child soldier, Harriet is concerned. Amy has no idea what to do.
Writer-director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox) breaks out with Luce, which feels like a filmed stageplay without the stilted stage-setting. One could easily see it adapted that way in the future. Its setpieces are the action of dialogue and tense one-on-one conversations between characters consistently hiding their motivations. No character is more enigmatic than Luce, who you instinctively want to root for but inside of whom you know something is boiling. To what end? Onah brings multiple perspectives and lets the audience decide. While there is a definitive conclusion to the plot with reveals, twists and catharsis, the questions Onah raises remain. In some ways its unexpectedly pointed commentary reminds me of The Hate U Give from last year, an underappreciated but vibrant film about contemporary issues of race, gender and abuses of power.
Harrison Jr. delivers a breakout performance. His Luce breaks traditional stereotypes regarding emotional men, playing all of the character’s rage, frustration, confusion and guilt hidden under the smooth demeanor of a valedictorian all-star athlete in a way rarely seen. This isn’t a school-shooting movie. Luce isn’t lashing out in violence and cruelty, although for the sake of tension the movie at times leans in that direction. It’s more subtle, Luce’s motivations complex and his worldview chaotic. Harrison is a standout star.
Is Luce harboring dark secrets? Can anyone confront him? Is his presence as the school’s star student tokenism or earned? Is Ms. Wilson targeting him? How should Amy and Peter handle their son who’s already dealing with the usual teenage issues? And what about Luce’s friend Stephanie (Andrea Bang), a young woman he’s close to and who is harboring traumas of her own? Luce pushes and pulls our own preconceived notions and prejudices to create a story without a clear trajectory, and it’s a tense, fascinating watch every second of the way.