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‘Luce’ Film Review: Tense Thriller Examines a Model Student Suddenly Under Suspicion

A former African child soldier turned exceptional adoptee high-schooler is at the center of this examination of race and privilege

Regardless of the premise behind the age-old foundation we still call the American Dream, not all are afforded the same prosperous outcome. Only the most powerful are granted the benefit of the doubt — the luxury to fall, reset and ultimately thrive. For the marginalized forced to kick-start their endeavors far behind on the racetrack, it’s a different story. How the intersection of race, gender and class shapes and oftentimes unjustly dictates one’s journey is eloquently examined in “Luce,” the third feature from Nigerian-American filmmaker Julius Onah.

This cumulatively unnerving psychodrama, where everyone harbors a deep secret, couldn’t be more relevant to today’s America of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and a severely biased allocation of power. But co-writers Onah and JC Lee (who wrote the stage play on which the film is based) take matters a step further. Their handsomely dynamic script continually pits various high-stakes qualms against each other, subtly conveying the longevity and evolution of these issues before they reached their current urgency.

As such, “Luce” often asks you to question your own perceptions, beliefs, values and prejudices, however morally upright or well intentioned you think you might be. The central character is African American teenager Luce Edgar, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.; as with his breakout turn in “It Comes At Night,” this is another double-edged, disquieting performance that requires a close watch to fully appreciate.

Luce is, by all accounts, a model, straight-A student in his Arlington, Va., high school: star athlete, debate team captain, loyal friend, and so on. All incredible achievements, considering they have only been a decade in the making. Ten years ago, he was an abused, gun-toting child soldier in Eritrea, where his white parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) adopted him. Now under the Edgars’ privileged, liberal-minded roof, Luce works hard and smartly takes advantage of every imaginable opportunity while carving out his own ideal place in this perfect world. Why, then, does his teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer, terrific in one of the most complicated roles of her career) treat him as anything less than an inspiration?

Spencer is so convincing that she almost burns her character’s suspicion into our eyeballs from the film’s early moments. Mind you, Ms. Wilson isn’t vocally disapproving of Luce at first, but Spencer’s body language and reluctant nods convey that she isn’t a part of the fan club that surrounds this success-story student, either. Soon enough, we learn the reason: Luce wrote a provocative essay for his class assignment, illustrating shockingly disturbing views on violence. It doesn’t look good for him, especially when paired with the illegal fireworks found in his locker. Surely, there must be a reasonable explanation for all this.

Onah, whose unfortunately muddled and overwrought “The Cloverfield Paradox” surprisingly launched on Netflix last winter, is on a ripe playground of shifting perspectives here. With “Luce,” he showcases elegant filmmaking skills that seem to have been earlier gobbled up by the ill-fated chapter of a big franchise. Onah emphasizes both what the camera shows and purposely hides, while the question of Luce’s true intentions lingers over it all like a dark cloud. It’s an effect the director achieves through expertly calculated long takes (lensed by cinematographer Larkin Seiple, “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.”) and an eerie score (composed by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, “Annihilation”) that heightens rather than prescribes the on-screen tension.

As Luce’s well-meaning yet unequipped white parents deal with the allegations on their own terms — Watts is especially spectacular in portraying the troubling aftermath of Amy’s awakening — the situation escalates to involve Luce’s friend DeShaun (Astro, “A Walk Among the Tombstones”) and ex-girlfriend Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang, “Kim’s Convenience”), who claims to be the victim of a gut-wrenching episode of sexual assault.

The more Luce’s behavior assumes a suggestively threatening dimension (once again, Harrison Jr. is excellent in portraying both innocence and guilt through his mannerisms), Onah confidently leans into his main inquiry: Is Luce obligated to carry the burden of being a poster child for the school and to offset the baggage a predominantly white circle inherently assigns to a black kid with a troubled background? Can he just not be free of these dated, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”-era duties of excellence, designed to make a white community feel comfortable? Every scene Onah carefully crafts around this question is both enlightening and perplexing in equal measure, with powerhouse face-offs between Luce and both DeShaun and Ms. Wilson engaging with black identity through the eyes of different generations and backgrounds.

The film’s most fascinating character journey belongs to Amy, who desperately tries to peel back all the layers and to trust her son anew, amid an unyielding teacher, an ex-girlfriend’s devastating trauma, and a school that wants nothing more than to see their idol pupil succeed. The suspense is perhaps a tad elongated, and the film’s risky, ambiguous handling of a #MeToo case is dangerously open to misinterpretation. But “Luce” remains a brave, cinematically articulate effort that questions our country’s core failings without ever tidily categorizing its characters. In a way, it asks us to do the same in our everyday lives just to get a bit closer to the kind of progress its main protagonist desires.