When a shocking claim is made about a star student and athlete, his adoring parents are forced to question their idealized view of him.
Written and directed by Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox), with the assist of J.C. Lee who originally penned the stage play, Luce is a gripping story that examines a variety of hot button issues: namely race, privilege, and the unique experience of a young immigrant.
On the surface, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) appears to be a perfectly normal teenager. He’s beloved by his teachers and classmates alike, often put on a pedestal and used as the example of the model student. His doting parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) adopted him as a child from Eritrea, where he had a very tumultuous life. So much so that he spent years in therapy and rehabilitation in order to overcome his past. This is something that Amy mentions more than once, with the slightest detection of testiness each time.
Troubles arise when Luce turns in an unsettling essay to his stern teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). For the assignment, she encouraged students to “think outside the box” and adopt the voice of a historical figure. To Harriet’s surprise, Luce selects a European philosopher with a fondness for violence and terrorism. With little to go on other than an inexplicable hunch, Harriet searches her star pupil’s locker and finds illegal fireworks.
What follows is a twisted game of sorts that creates incredibly tense onscreen moments between Harrison and Spencer and leads to compelling conversations between Amy and Peter about this boy they have brought into their lives.
The relationship between Luce and Harriet is of course central to the film. Harriet is a no-nonsense teacher who pushes her students. She’s not Luce’s favorite, in fact he boldly tells his mother, “She’s a bitch”. However, in the beginning, Harriet seems to be very supportive of the young scholar. When she discovers the fireworks, rather than outing him to the principal she calls Amy in for a conference hoping that the mom will talk to her son and set him straight. Surprisingly, Amy brushes her off and then takes both the essay and fireworks home, opting to put them away out of sight. That she doesn’t immediately confront her son (or read the paper!) is perhaps the first indication that something is seriously wrong.
Harrison’s performance is solid. He seems to really understand Luce and what makes him tick. One moment he’s full of charm, coming off as almost sickeningly sweet, but with little warning he can also be cold and somewhat menacing. Harrison has great material to work with, even though it still doesn’t quite seem like enough. A lot of things are never said aloud or fully explained about Luce. The audience doesn’t learn about the actual contents of his controversial essay, nor do we witness the boozy party where his on/off girlfriend tells Amy (and later Harriet) that she was sexually assaulted. His behavior can easily be described as mildly sociopathic at best, although nothing ever truly confirms this.
As for Spencer, it’s unfortunate she wasn’t given more to do. Her character is known for being tough, but fair, which is why it’s so difficult to accept how quickly her temperament changes. Seemingly overnight, she begins to treat Luce with suspicion and mistrust. More than once she is accused of having a personal vendetta against him, however, she has little motivation for wrongly accusing him of anything. A sub-plot arises with another Black student named DeShaun who was ultimately kicked off the track team after Harriet found weed in his locker and called the authorities.
Luce sees this act as unforgivable and later confronts her, demanding to know why he’s treated so differently than DeShaun. He expresses feeling pressure to succeed and be perfect in the eyes of his parents and White counterparts. Why DeShaun isn’t given the luxury of a second chance is not fully explored. In fact, the conversation felt cut short. I’d hoped it would be meatier; the ramp-up to this point in the film was definitely high. I loved the explosive quality of the dialogue and the two actors obviously tapped into something profound, however, the film just wasn’t prepared to go all the way.
The conversation of race is also snuffed pretty quickly between Luce’s parents, who are seemingly clueless about their son’s revelations on Blackness in America. It was interesting to see Watts operate in particular. Her character’s actions as a parent are often unrealistic. She comes across more like a roommate or accomplice than a mother. As the tension in the family dynamic grows, Luce begins to pointedly call her “Amy” rather than “Mom”. This obviously pains her, but she doesn’t dare correct him. In public, she defends Luce against Harriet, yet in private she skulks around interrogating his girlfriend and following him home from school, fact-checking things for herself. It’s entertaining watching her try and unravel the mystery that is her son.
Watts and Harrison have a great moment onscreen towards the end of the film where she decides to remain complicit in Luce’s life. She will undoubtedly continue to cover for her son, although it’s unclear if it’s to save face or protect the romanticized view she has of him. Her reward for overlooking her son’s bad behavior? He begins calling her “Mom” again.
Overall, Luce is a great watch even though it never quite lives up to its full potential. The direction is great and the story itself feels very significant. And boy do I wish you could bottle up the tension from this film and supply it to other filmmakers! That’s one thing that Onah and Co. do a greaaaat job at.
Luce is currently streaming on Hulu. See it for yourself!
I’m currently playing catch-up. Reviews coming soon for Just Mercy, Parasite, and maybe even Tyler Perry’s A Fall from Grace! 🤪 Which would you like to see first? Comment down below!