LUCE. Country, USA. Director, Julius Onah. Language, English. Cast: Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, and Tim Roth. Screenwriters, JC Lee and Julius Onah. Release Date, August 2, 2019. Runtime, 110 minutes. Venue: Angelika Film Center. Mostly Indies rating, A +.
Sandwiched in between The Nightingale and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is what I consider to be one of the best movies this year: Julius Onah’s Luce. Based on JC Lee’s off-Broadway play and also co-written by Onah, Luce is quite the conversation piece because of how difficult a story it is: in fact, the story offers so much complexity in narration, and characterization, that one cannot but only follow its puzzle, interpret the information it (selectively) gives, only to have it reveal something else entirely, and arrive at a conclusion that one would never expect. This is the kind of movie that we need more of, not empty-plotted monster movies or lousy exercises in action. Luce, even as a character study and rooted in theater, has loads of action happening right in front of you (and some developments, off-screen). It is, in essence, a master-class in compelling story telling with a quartet of actors at their best, the standouts here being Octavia Spencer as Luce’s discriminating teacher and Kelvin J Harrison Jr as the title character and by far, the glue that holds this entire thread in the palms of his hand.
From the moment we meet Luce we get a picture of a successful, polite, charming young man who is being groomed for greatness. Once Luce was a child soldier in Eritrea and was rescued, only to be adopted by Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). Through their love, their compassion, and — let’s face it — their affluence, Luce was able to conquer trauma, negative memories, and re-emerge into a star pupil at the verge of greatness in both his studies and athleticism. However, immediately that intro passes, we see some troubling signs that all is not quite right. For once, his teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), known for being particularly hard on African American students, doesn’t exactly cheer Luce after he delivers a rousing speech at the start of the movie. It could be she’s just stern, or perhaps there is something else.
That something else reveals itself as an essay Luce has written from an assignment she herself gave, His topic of choice, Frantz Fanon, a controversial figure who wrote about the implementation of violence as a mode to confront colonialism, disturbs her so much she calls Amy to her office to discuss her parenting as well as to give her a bag with fireworks she found in his locker. Keep in mind, from this essay that she herself assigned, she has somehow felt it her duty to invade his privacy, the locker he shares with his buds, and fears he might have troubling thoughts lingering underneath. Today’s climate at school, with students potentially acting out scenes of violence, Wilson feels it is her duty to confront it head on and see if there isk in fact, any truth to that. Amy and Peter don’t confront Luce immediately, but Luce soon has a series of confrontations with Wilson — one, a rehearsal for a debate, the other, an apparently cut and dry meeting in her office where Luce possibly throws a veiled threat. Needless to say, this threat does not sit well with Wilson.
We question the reason the Edgars don’t immediately confront Luce with the evidence (that they even leave carelessly tucked into a cabinet in the kitchen). Its never clear if this is because of genuine love (and keep in mind, parents will go to the ends of the earth for their child, adopted or not) or perhaps a need to be White saviors for a child that in other circumstances would never have had a chance. Where the situation becomes a bit thorny is when Amy does bring her doubts to the surface. Luce immediately starts calling her by her first name and withdraws. She starts asking her own questions, and in a scene involving Luce’s ex-girlfriend Stephanie (Andrea Bang), who may have had something awful happen to her at a party, she finds out more than she might have wanted to. This piece of information gets delivered extremely piecemeal, and when Wilson gets it in her possession, she sees it as a chance to vindicate herself, because as of yet, her claims have not been heard, and adding to that, the appearance of her mentally unstable sister at school, a scene that goes viral almost immediately, lands Wilson’s credibility and even her competence in shaky ground.
This is the type of story I live for. A narrative that seems to be at surface value cut and dry morphs constantly into something deeper and reveals shades of shadows even in its most well-defined characters. Luce forces you to first see one thing, then hear of another event linked, and then become privy to yet more information that might either negate what you thought was the truth and leave you with no one to truly root for. Is Luce a remarkable psychopath? Is Wilson, a strict teacher, in the right to have cut the dreams of another African American student short because she found pot in his locker, a locker that again, was shared? Could Luce have possibly engineered some of the later events in the movie and walked out a victor as Wilson despairs and his own parents sit silently by?
No answers, and that is just how I like it. Luce is a shapeshifting masterpiece with stellar performances from its quartet, one that crackles with tense energy and treats its scenario of life in school as if it were a puzzle with one or more of the crucial pieces missing and a growing sense of mysteries that we probably will not fully understand. Onah understands closeups and uses them to their maximum to elevate a rather wordy play into something else quite revealing… shadows hidden within light, characters who have traumas that they’d rather keep hidden.