The title character in Luce (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is functional and exceptional on the surface. He’s a star student, a valedictorian high schooler. He is the model of an inspirational American Dream story that many blind optimists love to eat up: a black teen who overcame his trauma as a child soldier in Eritrea and seized and earned every opportunity imaginable. His well-off adoptive Caucasian parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) look proudly upon him. The school is investing its hopes in him.
All except for his teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). Suspicious of an essay he wrote in the point-of-view of a reactionary, Miss Wilson takes it upon herself to search his locker and reveals a bag of firecrackers in a private conference with his mother. Citing Luce’s traumatic past, the teacher sees it as a red flag that Luce is planning violence. Or do the firecrackers really belong to Luce? Luce claims he shares lockers with his sports team, and few shots indicate he isn’t lying about that fact. Was Luce planning something sinister in the first place?
Is the teacher going too far in pressuring Luce to be his best self? Miss Wilson has a habit of singling out her marginalized students and pressuring them to live ideals of how marginalized students should survive within society. Luce and his friends find her approaches callous and overbearing while Spencer plays as more tough love than grudge-motivated by her own disgruntlement with the system as a black woman. In a raw exchange between teacher and student, they clash with their notions of their own black identities.
The plot unfolds as things unravel, with other characters long entangled in the psychological warfare between the tough teacher and Luce getting involved. First, Luce’s friend (Astro) had been rescinded his scholarship due to Miss Wilson’s actions. Next, Luce’s amiable ex (Andrea Bang, honing out a stellar performance of vulnerability) underwent a sexual assault at a college party, and the teacher aired her trauma to the class to extract a confession from her. Rumors and speculation suggest Luce was involved in what was done to her—or condoned it. Without throwing answers, this scenario forces its audience to consider the worst-case scenario for Luce’s character, which is particularly hard on Luce’s mother. Watts gives a fine portrait of a woke-striving woman, the kind of feminist-conscious parent bold enough to remind her husband and son not to call his teacher the B-word. Though the film doesn’t doubt her affection, it does allow skepticism toward her approach even as she tries to keep herself in proportion. Perceptive as she may try to be, her white privilege ends up permeating the scenarios in ways she cannot admit.
Written by J. C. Lee and Julius Onah, the script is skillful at trusting its audience to guess the assumptions and speculation stewing in each characters’ heads as they process incoming information. Luce lays out some blank spaces for the audience to fill in. These black spaces display the screenplay’s origins as J. C. Lee’s play where what happens off-stage matters as much as the events before our eyes. Onah is adept at letting both the on-screen and off-screen testimonies fester in the audience’s imagination into guesswork while never making clear-cut incriminations.
Luce takes its distance without encouraging ambivalence about its players. It’s left unclear how much of the events resulted from Luce’s machinations and premeditation. But it’s loud and clear that its leading character is wounded by the expectations around him, disgruntled with the boxes he and his peers have been slotted in. He is aware he is living a dream—and poisoned by it—of being a black model student reaping the benefits of success while watching his friends suffer because they did not live up to a standard. Cinematographer Larkin Seiple aims the lens to insinuate something mercurial in the young man’s face. Harrison suggests something alarming beneath Luce’s smile while also signifying distress.
Brick by brick, Luce displays the intersections and muddles of race, identity, and erasure. At times, the labyrinth of layers can lose themselves. There are some unhinges. I’m not the only reviewer to have issues with the treatment of the sexual assault plotline. Regardless, Luce evokes the difficult questions. It does not satisfy with answers, yet earns its dreary conclusion where there’s no clean resolution.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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