★★★★ / ★★★★
Julius Onah’s “Luce” is like a nesting doll. Just when you think you know what it is about and have it all figured out, it gives birth to another layer worth putting under a microscope. It possesses a keen understanding of human psychology and behavior, particularly the social contracts between parent and child; students and teachers; and peers who wish to maintain or improve their status. In its core, it is a drama. But it is told like a thriller. What results is a picture that commands utmost urgency. Every word counts. A certain look or deafening silence functions like a fire alarm. We find ourselves evaluating who knows what and precisely how much. We must think like the subjects in order to have a thorough understanding of them.
The first curiosity begins with the act of a concerned teacher having a meeting with the mother of the student with whom she suspects to be a possible threat to the school. Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) assigned her students to pick a historical figure and write a paper using their chosen figure’s perspective. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)—model student, ace athlete, excellent debater, and soon-to-be valedictorian—chose Frantz Fanon, a theorist who believes in using violence against those he disagrees with. Ms. Wilson was so disturbed by what she read, she took it upon herself to search through Luce’s locker. She found illegal firecrackers—enough to create a shotgun blast. The screenplay by J.C. Lee and Julius Onah is correct in not allowing the viewers to read any portion of the paper. Doing so leaves plenty to the imagination.
The drama unspools from here onwards. Given that Luce was adopted by white, affluent American parents (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth) at the age of seven from a war-torn country in Africa, it touches upon race. Specifically, what it means to be a young black immigrant in America, the expectations one must grapple with in order to avoid being just another stereotype. It broaches the topic of parents’ hardships and sacrifices for choosing to adopt instead of having and raising a biological child. Specifically, what they lost, individually as well as a couple, in the process. It tackles the subject of knowledge, how we cannot un-know information and the numerous implications that come with it. Clearly, the material is not simply interested in shocking plot turns. It is interested in providing context; it aims to inspire debate.
From the moment we meet the Edgars, notice right away how they do not feel like a family. They live in the same house, eat the same food, converse, laugh, make jokes, travel together once in a while—but there is a disconnect. This is an excellent choice by the filmmakers. It shows that even before the first controversy, there is something… not quite right about the Edgars. Perhaps the revelation regarding the essay and the firecrackers is simply a catalyst of what must be brought to the forefront. But this is no ordinary drama. In the end, there is little catharsis. There remains great uneasiness, questions, pain. It is apparent that the work is not for those who wish to feel good in a traditional sense.
“Luce” is based on a play screenwriter J.C. Lee, and it shows. Confrontations evoke a strong personality to them. Words are memorable because they hurt like daggers. It is fond of close-ups, as if to savor every minute emotion. Rooms tend to have a feeling of coldness to them even when it is full of people. When characters recall traumatic memories, we paint vivid portraits in our heads. It is mesmerizing nearly every step of the way.