Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the adopted son of Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). We learn that he grew up in Eritrea where he was the victim of violence that turned him into one of those child warriors that Western media loves to gawk at in both horror and fascination. It has taken Amy and Peter years of therapy and hard work to help heal Luce, but they are richly rewarded when their son is now the valedictorian, star athlete and debate champion of his high school. Both the faculty and his fellow students seem to admire him. Luce’s principal even says at one point that if you looked in the dictionary for the definition of model student you would see a picture of Luce.
One significant holdout is Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), a history teacher who gives a written assignment to her students where they are to take on the voice of a historical figure. Luce chooses to adopt the voice of Frantz Fanon, a Pan-Africanist revolutionary thinker who was notorious for supporting the use of violence in the role of revolution. Apparently, something in the essay raises enough of an alarm to motivate her to search Luce’s locker, in which she finds illegal fireworks, and Luce later explains that they probably belong to one of his classmates who stashes things in his locker all the time. The tension between Wilson and Luce as well as Luce’s family and classmates escalates and serves as the main thrust of this film.
Luce is meant to provoke discussions about race, class and privilege and when it sticks to its roots in theater (courtesy of playwright J.C. Lee and director Julius Onah), it works brilliantly. The film had its origins as an off-Broadway play by J.C. Lee, and when Nigerian-American director Julius Onah came onboard to work on the adaptation, he incorporated his own experiences about growing up and attending high school in the States. Onah’s first two features, The Girl is in Trouble and The Cloverfield Paradox, suffer from either excessive style or uninspired storytelling. Both are best in their more intimate moments, especially when it is just a few characters talking to each other, which Onah often frames beautifully. With this in mind, it makes sense that Onah seems most comfortable displaying the complicated psychological games that his and Lee’s script plays.
Crucial to making those words come alive are the actors, especially Harrison Jr. as Luce. His is easily the best and most demanding performance in the whole film simply for all the roles he has to play. On first impression, Luce comes across as charming, polite and well-spoken, and it is easy for the audience to see why his parents and classmates love him so much. Yet as the film progresses, it becomes clear that his demeanor is a performance meant to adapt to whomever he is interacting with. Slowly, we come to realize that Luce is essentially a cipher onto whom people will project whatever they want, and it is difficult to see who the “real” Luce is, perhaps impossible. It is because of Harrison’s performance that our minds are set racing trying to determine what his deal is.
In the midst of all this are questions about privacy and the unrealistic, racially charged expectations put upon young people of color. The film seems to want to really delve into the double standard applied to young African American men, that for them there is no middle ground. They are seen as either saints or demons, and Luce even says as much at one point in the film. Concerns about this attitude have been around for well over a century and Luce seemed to be well-poised to tackle these questions until it starts trying to do even more. A subplot about Harriet Wilson’s sister, who has a serious mental condition, comes off as not only tangential to the story, but also borderline insensitive since the movie ultimately treats her as a spectacle and plot device. Another subplot concerning Luce’s ex-girlfriend Stephanie (Andrea Bang) adds another potentially interesting dimension, but the screenplay drops it before it can develop into anything interesting. These plot machinations put the film in danger of turning into another high school drama- possibly one found on the CW- which is clearly not this movie’s intention.
Yet Luce is still gripping as a thriller because of Harrison and the other actors’ performances, who are aided immensely by those behind the camera. Visually, the film benefits from the limpid camerawork of Larkin Seiple, who can make simple conversations seem weighty with little flash and credit must also be given to editor Madeleine Gavin since these conversations would have even less weight if they were cut even slightly wrong. On a story level though, the aforementioned attempts to make the film more cinematic and less like a play end up detracting from the overall impact of the film. Luce should have had more conviction to embrace its ambiguity, much like Lee Chang-dong’s Burning from 2018. As a result, it might be best to see Luce as a primer for art and narratives that explore these topics of race, class and privilege, rather than as a definitive film to watch about these subjects.