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.)
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.
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.
Take a look at the preview.
Have you seen the film? What did you think was going on with Luce?