Sundance 2019: "Luce" Review

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Luce explores the delicate line between the perceptions that people have of other people versus the truth of who they are. While our individual experience is on a spectrum, human nature and history has  placed its construction of race in boxes in order to “understand” each other. This film allows its main character to work within the constraints of those boxes to exploit the system in a powerful way that puts some of those ideals on trial.

Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) was adopted from war-torn Eritrea by his white parents, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) at the age of ten. His parents helped him get through years of therapy to heal wounds from being a child soldier, and sacrifice to provide him the best life possible. Now a senior in high school, he’s fully acclimated to America and in fact, is a stellar student! He’s a beacon of light for his fellow students, especially the black population, and the weight of that is heavy on his shoulders.  

The film’s inciting incident occurs when Luce’s teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), calls Amy in to talk about a discovery she’s made. After tasking the class with an assignment to write a paper in the voice of a historical figure, Luce chose the radical Frantz Fanon, who believed in hurting others for a cause. On top of that, Ms. Wilson searched Luce’s locker and found illegal fireworks that pack the same punch as a shotgun. Ms. Wilson’s motive for bringing Amy in before letting anyone else make the discovery is to protect Luce’s reputation and make sure he succeeds.  

With this information and the materials in her possession, Amy talks to her husband as soon as she gets home. This initial conversation is where both Amy and Peter start making judgements on Luce’s character, and we as audience members must make our own conclusions on the situation as well. As the story moves forward, little by little, we find out more of the big picture of what’s happening at school and see how characters in this world make judgement calls based off of pre-conceived and personal thoughts. 

Situations like Stephanie Kim’s (Andrea Bang) possible rape during a party, and Luce’s ex-teammate Deshaun (Astro) getting caught with weed in his locker are all brought to the forefront of conversation in the film. What does it mean for Luce’s reputation if he participated in either of these activities? Why does Luce get special treatment over his friends? What does it feel like to be the person that everyone looks at for hope and expects to be virtually perfect?

While the film does interrogate these questions and the American dream on a large scale, screenwriters J.C. Lee and Julius Onah nail what being black, talented, and on a pedestal in America feels like. The ideal of tokenism (the one black person in a room/organization/team/etc.) and pressure to be on is something that Luce feels constantly, and is spot on. They find a sweet spot in making their point without hammering it home, which is hard to do.

Ultimately, this play turned screenplay is brought to life by its stellar cast. Kelvin Harris Jr. is undoubtedly an actor to watch! He commands the screen and authentically connects with the ability to perform in different spaces with uncanny finesse. The scenes where Octavia Spencer and Harris Jr. face off are electric and the things award nominations are made of. Tim Roth and Naomi Watts embody the sacrifice parents make for their children, and the individual struggles of giving blind trust versus questioning your child. Even the supporting cast members like Andrea Bang and Marsha Stephanie Blake (who brilliantly plays Rosemary Wilson, Ms. Wilson’s mentally ill sister) are exhilarating to watch. Their characters are real, dimensional people that you can connect with. 

The music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury swell with tension and put you on edge. It supplements the story that unfolds before your eyes in a way that hits on all cylinders. Luce is a film that you want to watch again to not only to catch what you may have missed in a scene, but also the ideals explored that you may want to ponder over more. It’s a must see!

Rating: A-