Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a specimen of excellence, a future model citizen. A high schooler on his way to a prominent career in whatever he pleases, Luce is charismatic, intelligent, athletic, a quiet leader, and an ace debater. He has the ability to convince others that what he is saying is correct. The audience included, perhaps.
When history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) presents to Luce’s parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) a paper Luce wrote in the voice of Frantz Fanon, an anti-colonial revolutionary that argued for the necessity of violence to fight colonialization, his ideal character comes into question.
To Harriet, Luce may be harboring dangerous political philosophies that could prove harmful if not curbed. To Luce, he wrote the paper as the assignment intended and Wilson is out to get him. To the viewer, either or both of the two could be exercising varying degrees of lying.
Large ethical, quasi-legal arguments ensue between the two, and the tension stems from a question of who is genuine, if anyone is. Is Harriet lying and manipulating in order to undermine the agency of her students? Is Luce truly radical in his belief system and willing to do whatever is necessary to squash neo-colonialist thinking?
Meanwhile, his foster parents oscillate on their own belief of their son’s innocence, grappling with suspicions while acting as audience surrogates that the audience doesn’t really need. Throughout the film, the two of them swap opinions, differ, agree, or are altogether uncertain. And it seems that denial and their sheltered suburban existence makes it hard for them to see through deception and find the truth.
The film is also populated by a number of supporting characters—DeShaun (Astro), a former running teammate of Luce’s; Stephanie (Andrea Bang), a former girlfriend of Luce’s; and Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake), Harriet’s formerly hospitalized sister. They act to complicate the plot and add tension to the thematic thread. But they also function as a symbol of the film’s greatest shortcoming.
Luce, from director Julius Onah and adapted from the play by J.C. Lee (the two co-wrote the script), is ostensibly a psychological drama with a puzzle box narrative, but it presents itself as a film on the pulse of contemporary American issues. DeShaun loses his scholarship and his spot on the team when drugs are found in his locker. He resents Luce, because Luce wouldn’t get the same treatment. Rosemary suffers from mental illness, and she is violently taken by police after having a breakdown. Stephanie is involved in an instance of sexual misconduct, and she is hesitant to report the incident. Add to this the issue of safety in American schools that is implied by Harriet’s concerns over Luce’s behavior.
These are sensitive political subjects, and Lee and Onah’s script only glances against them. They are mainly used as a means of driving the plot, as pieces in the puzzle. They are tools for suspense and not true thematic material which the film endeavors to dissect, but it presents them as if they are part of a larger discourse.
The tension in Luce, created by this windy and involved plot that connects about a dozen disparate threads, drips like a leaky pipe under the sink. It rhythmically plops down onto the wood cabinet, the sound of it unnerving. By the midpoint of the film, the continued drip starts a mold from repetition. The wood starts to sag under the weight of this slower-than-slow burn. The questioning of motives becomes less and less interesting, and the climax does not bring an adequate resolution to the tension.
Onah chooses ambient moments in transition of scenes to punctuate the tension with a pulsing score. Otherwise, the music soundtrack is silent, and the film is driven by words. These moments, meant to inspire movement and set the mood, are generally out of place. It is the lack of non-diegetic sound that fuels the tension, and these transitions don’t add much.
It is mostly the performances that add something to this overly-plotted, overly-written movie. Harrison Jr., who showed off his quiet intensity in It Comes At Night, is the standout performance here. He plays every line as a potential question, convincing enough for those around him but not quite enough to fool us. But the truly marvelous thing about Harrison Jr. is that when Luce’s charming facade drops and he becomes more intense, that is when it is most difficult to see Luce’s true motives.
Spencer, too, is compelling to watch, and it is the scenes her and Harrison Jr. share that are the most engaging. Watts and Roth also provide good supporting performances, but the scenes involving just the two of them don’t fully develop.
The biggest thing up for debate in Luce, the crux on which opinions will hinge, is whether or not it properly provokes. It presents avenues for debate, springboards from which intellectually-minded moviegoers will jump and project their own ideologies, eager to debate the political intricacies at play. But these intricacies must be supplied by the viewer, mostly. The conversation-starter argument for Luce‘s effectiveness is hindered by its inability to sustain conversations of its own.
The closest we get to a full discussion of political themes is when Luce is finally confronted by Harriet, after all is said and done. This scene brings about a true conversation about the tokenism that Luce brings up early in the film and that DeShaun confronts him on. Until this scene between teacher and student, the theme of tokenism gets lost in the other buzzy, topical topics that the film only brushes against.
This lack of discussion in a film so pointedly about political ideology makes Luce feel somewhat hollow. The performances carry the weight of the talky script in a way that makes this appear like a psychological thriller. But it isn’t really a thriller. And it isn’t thematically rich enough to be what it sets out to be.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)