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There are many, many shattering moments in writer-director Julius Onah’s troubling, gripping drama Luce, which premiered at this year’s Sundance and is now showing as part of the Tribeca film festival, but one scene cuts deepest. The titular character, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr, is a black high schooler adopted aged seven from war-torn Eritrea, where he’d been raised as a child soldier. Years of therapy and rehabilitation have turned him into an all-star triumph, heralded by his predominantly white Virginia high school as a model of black excellence.
But his many achievements have also come at a great price. Luce finds himself existing in an increasingly claustrophobic box, one created for him by the country he now lives in. And while it might seem freer than the one forced on to a black schoolmate who’s been labelled a weed-smoking delinquent, it remains a box nonetheless. Luce has to work twice as hard to impress while being given half of the leeway his white friends are allowed. While preparing to give yet another speech to the school, Luce practises in front of an empty auditorium. He talks about his harrowing, violent childhood and how lucky he now is to be living in America, where he can be whoever he wants to be, as tears stream down his face. It’s a gut-punch of a scene, arriving with an almost overwhelming intensity and, importantly, is one of the only moments we get to spend alone with Luce.
Because Luce isn’t allowed to have an off day. His high-wattage smile, his charming repertoire, his athletic prowess – all on, all the time. The tight leash he’s been given means that perfection isn’t a goal for him, it’s a given. The central mystery of the film hinges on finding out just who Luce really is. Given his background, his adoptive parents Amy and Peter, played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, live with an underlying fear that the violence he was taught might erupt with age. When Amy is called in to see Luce’s history teacher, Harriet, played by Octavia Spencer, the cracks start to appear. Harriet is concerned about a paper Luce has written. The task was to write in the voice of a historical character. Luce chose the revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who called for violence as an unavoidable part of decolonisation. The intensity of his argument caused alarm bells and led to a search of his locker where she found a bag filled with illegal fireworks.
What follows is a tense, knotty puzzle I won’t describe in much detail: one of the film’s great pleasures is awkwardly trying to piece it all together. It’s a drama that moves like a thriller with a stark, uncomfortable score and a series of seat-edge confrontations heating up a difficult debate over trust, expectation and racial stereotypes. The script, from Onah and JC Lee, whose play the film is based on, teeters on a razor’s edge throughout, forcing us to question our own preconceptions and to look past characters who, for some, could be easily defined by their race, gender or class. One of the film’s main arguments is that people exist on a spectrum – one as varied and complicated for us all, a blindingly obvious truism that many still seem to ignore. No one person fits into a box or lives up to a stereotype. For Luce, that crushing weight of becoming what a friend refers to as the new Obama, is stifling.
But Luce is by no means a victim and the film’s delicate balance of power and tone has us questioning him throughout. He’s effortlessly charismatic at times, yet unnervingly sinister at others. It’s a role that requires a subtle grasp of a very specific form of code-switching, Luce veering back and forth with the drop of a hat. Harrison Jr, who was devastating in the dystopian thriller It Comes At Night, is so astounding here that it’s tough to imagine how any of it could have worked without him. There’s a scalpel-like precision to his acting choices, a single glance or a shift in his body further clouding our idea of who Luce is, and in the scenes where we finally see the burden of his life take a toll, he’s heartbreaking. There’s been a strangely muted atmosphere around the film but he’s deserving of much awards attention later in the year.
After a worryingly long string of misfires, it’s great to see Watts given a role she can really sink her teeth into. She’s wonderful here, convincing us of the inner turmoil faced by a mother unwilling to accept the worst about her son. And while Spencer might be fresh off yet another Oscar nomination, she’s rarely allowed to embody a character with such nuance. She’s excellent – stern yet vulnerable, and played with enough ambiguity that we’re also questioning her motivations as events unravel.
Luce is a difficult film to unwrap arriving at a suitably difficult time and Onah, whose crisp, uncluttered direction entirely makes up for his Cloverfield misfire, doesn’t want us to leave feeling like the puzzle has been solved. He wants us angry, confused, heartbroken and uneasy, walking out of the cinema in a state that many of us will be horribly familiar with living in America at the moment. Luce doesn’t have the answers but it’ll force many of us to be asking more of the right questions.
Source: The Guardian
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