THE STORY – A liberal-minded couple, Amy and Peter Edgar, are forced to reconsider their image of their adopted son after they discover he has written an extremley disturbing essay for his class at school.
THE CAST – Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Norbert Leo Butz & Tim Roth
THE TEAM – Julius Onah (Director/Writer) & J. C. Lee (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 109 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
When I think of great American movies, my mind typically goes to “The Godfather,” “Citizen Kane” or “The Graduate.” All of them embody what it means to be an American for their time, whether its the pursuit of happiness, success, power or purpose. All of them and many more have stood the test of time with cinema audiences because of their messages and values and now 2019 has delivered what I believe is the quintessential film on what it means to be an American in 2019 with “Luce.”
Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), is a perfect teenage kid. He is the Captain of the track team, President of the debate team, a model student, a good son, friend, and citizen. At a young age, he was adopted by his white liberal parents Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts & Tim Roth, reuniting from “Funny Games”) from a war zone and rehabilitated to become the person he is today. All seems well, as the bright and clever Luce prepares to go to college. However, one day, his teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), discovers explosive fireworks in his locker and presents a paper he wrote on advocating for violence to solve a political problem to his mother, prompting a series of accusations, assumptions and disturbing revelations for all involved.
After coming off of the highly disappointing “The Cloverfield Paradox,” writer/director Julius Onah has come roaring back with an angry indictment on identity in today’s societal culture. Somewhere between the truth and the lies is the character Luce. He’s a symbol to others, yet also a fully fleshed-out character for the audience and of course, to himself. He is more than the assumed stereotype that society labels him as. Or is he? Is he a self-fulfilling prophecy for the trap that this country has laid out before him? A country that claims it is progressive and accepting but it’s evident that there are still numerous problems when it comes to race and class structure today beyond counting. There are no easy questions in “Luce” and there are certainly no easy answers. For the deeper we dig to get to the truth, Julius Onah’s film reveals that the truth is ugly, it is horrible and it is all built on a lie. However, I’m not going to sit here and pretend my interpretation of the events played out in “Luce” are definitive. There are multiple sides to every story and in this age where information and the truth are heavily skewed by those who provide it, “Luce” brings those issues down to its characters and shows us the true consequences of our good intentions, our worst intentions and lies/truths we refuse to face. It will get you thinking. It will provoke you. And hopefully, it will enlighten you.
This is of course, brought to life by a fantastic ensemble of actors who are all at the top of their game. Kelvin Harrison Jr. in particular is highly convincing one moment as the sweet and innocent boy who is well respected by his community and then at the drop of a dime, he can transform into a menacing teenager who may or may not have the capacity to perpetrate violence in order to make a point. One of the masterstrokes of this screenplay was to make Luce the captain of his high school debate team. It provides screenwriters J.C. Lee and Julius Onah the ability to craft some truly riveting scenes of dualing dialogue between Luce and the other characters as he is constantly questioning their motives, maintaining his innocence while leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that may or may not suggest he is capable of what he is being accused of. It is a tightrope performance from a young actor that truly impressed me and will only open up more doors for him in the future.
Naomi Watts is terrific as always, as the mother who wants so desperately to believe her son is the person she has built an ideal image of in her own mind. Tim Roth’s performance as the no-nonsense taking husband who passively went into this situation with his wife got better for me on repeat viewings. And Norbert Leo Butz as the school’s principal, Dan Towson, is a welcome presence every time he is on screen, adding a voice of reason to many scenes with authoritative command and warmth. This entire cast is truly wonderful, playing each other’s characters off of another, especially in a climactic scene towards the end where they all come together for a fateful sit-down conversation regarding Luce. However, the film’s secret weapon is Octavia Spencer who gives, for my money, the best performance of her career. She is rigid in her beliefs, stern in her attitude and undeniably impactful in her big emotional scenes regarding her complicated relationship with her mentally ill sister (Played by Marsha Stephanie Blake in a hauntingly convincing performance). This is an acting showcase for everyone involved, as tensions build, the risk becomes higher and the twists keep on coming. What helps to keep “Luce” grounded though, are the relatability of the characters, the performances from the actors and the true-to-life situations they find themselves in. It’s genuinely frightening and a true condemnation over how judgmental we have become as a society.
Prepare to be shaken by “Luce.” No other film this year has rattled me to my core more than this one. Masterfully executed by Julius Onah and co-writer J.C. Lee, with across the board terrific performances from the cast (Some of whom are delivering career-best work) and providing us with enough thought-provoking questions to occupy multiple TED talks, “Luce” is everything I want in contemporary American cinema and it provided me more than I ever thought possible. Even with three viewings under my belt, I’m still surprised by these performances, the film’s ideas, its handling of the subject matter and its ambiguity, based on perception, expectation, and assumption. Try to go in as blindly as possible. By the time it’s all over, you may or may not fully know Luce, you may or may not understand Luce but you will certainly never forget him.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Phenomenal performances from the entire cast that embraces the best aspects of the play. A film that says so much and gives us a lot to think about long after it is over. Julius Onah’s command over the film’s tone, performances and gripping tension.
THE BAD – Some may feel it is overly plotted and theatrical to the point that it stretches believability.
THE OSCARS – None