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Review: Luce (2019)

Luce (2019)

Directed by: Julius Onah

Premise: Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the black adopted teenage son of a pair of white upper class parents (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts). He is a model student but one of Luce’s teachers is concerned that he might be involved in something unseemly. 

What Works: Luce is a smart story about identity and how it is complicated by race and social expectations. The title character is a young black man who has become a poster child of American success; he was adopted from an African country besieged by war and under the supervision of loving parents Luce has successfully acclimated to American society where he is poised to have a great future. But Luce’s outward appearance of repose and diligence might bely something much more troubled. One of the young man’s high school teachers is disturbed by the content of an essay he wrote and fireworks are subsequently found in Luce’s locker. It is unclear whether this is just a misunderstanding or something more is amiss and the film plays upon that ambiguity. Luce is a smart picture about what we see in others and how race and class and the narratives we cast about individuals or certain groups force us to see them a certain way or preclude us from seeing them in other ways. That idea is embedded into the drama and the turns in the action hinge upon the characters confronting their expectations of each other. The themes of Luce allow the actors to provide nuanced and complex characterizations. Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the title role and he terrifically manages his performance; we can see Luce code shift or put on a performance for different groups even while the people he interacts with are oblivious to what he’s doing. And what’s more, Luce is clearly aware of how he’s manipulating people and that makes him fascinating to watch. Tim Roth and Naomi Watts play Luce’s adoptive parents and their son’s problems at school reveal the complexities of their marriage and suspicions of their son that might be racism or could be something else. Also notable are Octavia Spencer and Marsha Stephanie Blake; Spencer plays a hardened high school instructor and Blake is her troubled sister. Their subplot adds depth to teacher’s character while also deepening the film’s themes and Spencer and Blake have a few heartbreaking scenes.

What Doesn’t: The structure of Luce’s narrative isn’t maximized for impact. The middle of the story sags because the most critical events happen at the very beginning of the movie; the narrative needs something more decisive and dramatic to happen to escalate the conflict. It’s not clear what’s at stake. The parents and teacher infer that something might be wrong with Luce but their concerns remain vague. There’s no risk that something bad is going to happen unless the truth is revealed. We do get to the bottom of matters but not in a way that entirely pays off. The scenes of the last half hour of Luce aren’t arranged in a way that brings matters to a close and so the story feels like it just stops rather than arrives at a conclusion.

Bottom Line: Luce is a fascinating study in the way identity shapes our interactions and expectations and how those prejudices shape people’s lives. The narrative isn’t maximized for drama but the film succeeds as a character study.

Episode: #765 (September 9, 2019)