Note: This is a re-post of our Luce review from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The film is now playing in limited release.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film about identity quite as challenging or difficult as Luce. Discovering who we are on this Earth is a part of growing up, but it’s admittedly riddled with added complications for minorities of all kinds. Luce follows the unique track of a former child soldier from Eretria who was adopted by a pair of affluent white individuals and raised to overcome his trauma. Now a shining star high school student, a series of revelations force the titular character’s parents, teachers, and fellow students to confront not only their preconceived notions of the man, but the man they believe (and want) him to be.
Based on the play of the same name by J.C. Lee, Luce opens with the titular character (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. in a star-making role) giving a speech at his school. He is optimistic, charismatic, and good-natured. A model student. In fact after the event, the principal jokingly asks Luce’s adoptive parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Edgar (Tim Roth) how they can clone the boy. Everything seems idyllic, until Luce’s U.S. History and Government teacher Harriet (Octavia Spencer) asks Amy to meet in her office to discuss a paper Luce wrote. The assignment was to assume the point of view of a figure from history and write an essay. Luce chose Frantz Fanon, a political radical who advocated violence to make a point, spurring Harriet to search Luce’s locker where she found illegal fireworks.
Amy and Edgar consider how and whether to confront Luce about this issue, all the while he discovers what’s up and visits Harriet, vaguely but chillingly threatening her… or maybe not. Indeed, Luce is told from the points of view of the parents and teachers, not Luce himself. It’s a brilliant decision because the audience is left guessing who’s right, who’s wrong, and what’s truthful. The stereotypes imposed on Luce—as a model student, a young black man, and a former child soldier taken in and “acclimated” by white savior parents—are on full display, and the tension builds and builds to the point that you almost feel like you’re watching a horror movie.
Julius Onah directs the hell out of this thing. While Onah’s voice was fairly unrecognizable in The Cloverfield Paradox, his attention to detail in Luce is meticulous and calculated. The score by Geoff Barow and Ben Salisbury, meanwhile, is inspired and stress-inducing.
Luce is a film that keeps you guessing, but for all the right reasons. The plot is intriguing to be sure, and you want to know whether Luce is actually the model student he’s portrayed as or if he has more violent underpinnings, but the plot is in service of the film’s examination of stereotyping and identity. How do stereotypes affect those upon whom they’re imposed? What happens when we make assumptions about someone’s life, only to realize we were mistaken? Do we apologize or do we double down? And more importantly, why? Luce offers no easy answers, and isn’t tied only to racial stereotyping—there’s a sexual assault subplot that is as harrowing as it is true to life. Luce is a challenging, difficult film anchored by a groundbreaking performance from Harrison Jr. that forces us to confront hard truths about the world we live in, and whether best intentions matter if the end result is a mess.
Harrison Jr. is downright phenomenal in the lead role, playing the “model student’ perfectly but also letting on that there’s something of a façade in place that masks the horrors he endured as a child. The performance calls for the character to be ambiguous, terrifying, and empathetic all at once, and Harrison Jr. positively nails it. Octavia Spencer, meanwhile, delivers one of the best performances of her career thus far as a concerned teacher and advocate for civil rights who has her own ideas about how best to prepare young African-Americans for the future. There’s a confidence to her character that is assuring, but Spencer makes sure to layer in how years of fighting injustice have taken a toll on Harriet. Watts and Roth are no slouches either, and indeed while Luce is based on a play and the screenplay calls for a lot of conversations, Onah does a terrific job of keeping the film cinematic.
Luce is a movie that offers no easy answers, even with its conclusion. In that way, it reflects the real world, and forces the audience to think more critically about decisions we make—both reflexive and consciously—on a daily basis. It’s challenging in the best way, anchored by a tremendous ensemble.