The name Luce (sounds like loose) was given to its title character after being adopted from the war-torn nation of Eritrea at the age of ten. As he tells it, his adoptive mother Amy (Naomi Watts) couldn’t pronounce his birth name – unable to master the various syllables involved. Like Amy, we never do learn it. So Luce it is, which means light. In the context of the film Luce, this strikes me as a not insignificant detail. From the moment he comes to the United States, he’s accustomed to others defining him and believing what they see. In their eyes, there is no darkness. Only light.
Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a high school senior, raised by upper class Amy and Peter (Tim Roth). He is looked at as the model student. An all-star athlete and debate club standout, Luce can apparently do no wrong. When history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) begins poking holes at his impenetrable facade, his status is challenged. As is her reputation.
What unfolds is a tale of race relations and, more significantly, racial expectations. No one in Luce is all that innocent. The picture often plays like a thriller where you expect a core player to snap. You’re just not sure who it will be. I’ll add that the tightly wound score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is a contributor to the feeling.
Harrison Jr. has a complicated character to portray and he succeeds in keeping the audience off-kilter. He’s charming, but there’s no doubt that another layer is bubbling not far under the surface. Spencer may have the trickiest role as Harriet navigates the repercussions of her discoveries about Luce. As always, she’s up to the challenge.
Julius Onah directed and co-wrote with JC Lee and Luce is an exercise clearly meant to spark discussion. The screenplay often allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions about who to root for and against or perhaps feel ambivalent about. There’s also the odd sensation of some themes being redundant. If you’re searching for a pat ending to fill in every blank, ambivalence may be your overarching reaction. The overall thesis to this story, like Luce’s original name, is unpronounced or at least left for speculation. I found Luce, for the most part, successful in creating a sense of tension before the conversations start after fade out.
*** (out of four)