Review: Luce

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Luce

Luce is a challenging story because you’re never clear about what’s really happening. The four main characters turn in brilliant performances. That makes digging through the subtleties even harder.

Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a high school senior. He’s an A student, a track star, a champion debater. He was a child soldier in Eritrea until the age of 7 when he was adopted by a white couple played by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts.

After many years of therapy his parents are satisfied he’s well adjusted and on his way to a brilliant life.

Luce is polite to everyone. He flashes a charming smile and says whatever needs to be said. He has some issues with his teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). She seems like a brilliant teacher, challenging the students to think critically. (There’s critical thinking required of the viewers in this film, too.)

Octavia Spencer in Luce

When Ms. Wilson assigns a paper to be written from the point of view of a person in history, she’s concerned when Luce writes as a militant who advocated violence to achieve change.

Ms. Wilson searches Luce’s locker and finds a bag of illegal fireworks. Instead of confronting Luce with it, she calls his mother Amy (Naomi Watts). Amy refuses to believe anything bad about Luce. She takes the fireworks home and hides them. She also hides the paper Luce wrote.

Luce’s dad Peter (Tim Roth) is more willing to talk about the idea that there might be some fault from Luce in the tone of the paper and the powerful fireworks. The conversations between the two of them are electrifying.

Further drama involving Stephanie (Andrea Bang) is added. Rumors about her circulate. She tells Amy she was sexually assaulted by a group of boys. She tells Ms. Wilson she was raped by Luce. In the meantime she’s happily Luce’s girlfriend.

Tim Roth, Naomi Watts, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Luce

Finally, the principal (Norbert Leo Butz) calls together Luce’s family, Ms. Wilson and himself. Amy lies about the fireworks and the paper. Stephanie, who told Ms. Wilson she would join the meeting, disappears. Ms. Wilson looks like the villain in the situation. Was it a setup?

When Amy gets home and looks for the fireworks, they are gone from her hiding place. She still won’t consider the idea that Luce is to blame for anything. Luce tries to tell her, show her who he is, but at the same time he tries to placate her and charm her.

Ms. Wilson’s home is vandalized with racial graffiti. One night a bunch of fireworks go off in Ms. Wilson’s desk. A fire starts in her classroom.

Luce was fascinating. I was never sure if he was just a typical teen who lied to his parents so he could go on with his own life, or if he was a psychopath who lied to cover up deep demons. What did all those years of therapy actually teach him? He was adept at saying the right thing in any situation, crying if needed, smiling when needed, acting surprised when needed.

Ms. Wilson was traumatized not only by the graffiti and the fire, but her sister Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake) was a serious problem. I wasn’t sure if Rosemary was mentally ill or a drug addict, but either way she was an issue for Ms. Wilson. Was Ms. Wilson’s way of teaching something racial or personal or misguided?

There are so many underlying questions about race and class involved in the answers to these questions. This was one of the most challenging and unforgettable movies I’ve seen.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. appeared in 5 projects released in 2019, including Waves. He worked on a similar number of projects released in 2018. It looks like he’ll have that many more to his credit before 2020 ends. In summary, Kelvin Harrison Jr. is on fire. He’s a brilliant performer and everyone wants to put him in everything. He’s a big talent worth watching.

I watched Luce on Hulu, but it’s available from several other streamers as well.

Poster for Luce

Take a look at the preview.

Have you seen the film? What did you think was going on with Luce?

4 thoughts on “Review: Luce”

  1. I have seen “Luce.” I agree with you when you say it is captivating and fascinating. But there are some weak points in this drama.

    I do not wish to spoil the viewing for anyone. Therefore I will only mention something that happens in the beginning (during the first 5-10 minutes) of the drama.

    The history teacher Harriet invites Amy, the mother if Luce, to a meeting at the school. She tells her that the students were given an assignment. When she read the paper Luce handed in, she was concerned.

    The task was as follows: pick a famous person and imagine you are this person. Tell me what you said and did.

    Luce chose Franz Fanon. When Amy hears this name, she says: “Who is he?” She reveals that she does not know much about history. Harriet tells her that Fanon advocated the use of violence. This is why she is concerned about Luce. She fears he has a violent nature.

    Amy is shocked. She is also concerned. She cannot see that Luce has done exactly what he was asked to do. He put himself in Franz Fanon’s place.

    Luce did not advocate violence. He never stated his own views. There is more:

    Fanon does not just advocate violence. He says a colonial people have the right to use violence to gain their freedom.

    Neither Amy nor Harriet can see that the US revolution of 1776 is based on this very principle.

    This is not all. Because Harriet was concerned, she took action: she inspected Luce’s locker. Alone. Without any witnesses. I wonder how this was even possible.

    She does not know the code for the padlock. How can she open the locker? She could use a bolt cutter, but does she have one? And if she used a bolt cutter, it would be clear that someone had broken into his locker.

    What did she find? She says she found a bag with some fireworks. Some of them illegal. How does she know how to identify illegal and legal fireworks?

    Amy does not object to any of this. She does not ask how or why Harriet inspected the locker. She just agrees. Odd. Very odd.

    What happens next? Harriet hands the essay and the bag with the fireworks to Amy who takes them home. Teacher and parent agree to bury this issue!

    What could and should Harriet have done? She could and should have contacted the principal if she was concerned. The principal could decide to inspect the locker. It must be highly improper for a teacher to do this all alone.

    There is more: Luce and his parents seem close. They talk about many things at the dinner table. Luce would have mentioned the task that Harriet gave the class. He would have mentioned that he had chosen Franz Fanon. Apparently this never happened.

    When Amy comes home, she hides the evidence and talks to her husband Peter. But they do not confront Luce with the case! Instead they avoid it. This is a case of bad parenting.

    I cannot believe that that there are so many weak points in the beginning of this drama. And the beginning is important because everything flows from these opening scenes.

    Apart from this I must say that the drama is captivating because we never know what is true or false. We never know who we can trust and who is lying.

    1. @ Virginia do you have any other series that you can recommend that are like the peaky blinders series on Netflix or cable girls ?

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