Luce Movie Review

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)

Will The Indie Spirits Nominees Showcase Oscar Gems?

This afternoon, the nominations for the 35th Independent Spirit Awards were released as we prepare for the onslaught of Oscar precursors to follow. And make no mistake – the Indie Spirits are indeed a precursor. In this decade from 2010-2018, five of the nine Best Feature winners emerged victorious with the Academy for Best Picture: 2011’s The Artist, 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, 2014’s Birdman, 2015’s Spotlight, and 2016’s Moonlight. Some of these years have three or four of the five nominees get Oscar nods in the big race.

However, 2018 marked the first year of this decade when none of the five nominated pictures at the Indies garnered any Academy love. I don’t expect that to occur for a second year in a row.

In this post, I’ll break down Feature, Director, and the four acting races and what it might mean for Oscar:

Best Feature

Nominees: A Hidden Life, Clemency, The Farewell, Marriage Story, Uncut Gems

First things first: Marriage Story is going to get a Best Picture nomination and probably wins here. And it might be the only one here that does. The Farewell has a decent shot and Uncut Gems is a potential sleeper (though I wouldn’t bet on it).

That said, Gems did tie The Lighthouse for most Indie mentions (5). And that brings us back to Marriage Story. The voters here chose to give it a special Robert Altman award honoring the team behind it. That includes cast members Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, and Alan Alda. They all probably would’ve heard their names here had that not occurred and same goes for director Noah Baumbach. If that seems like a bit of a cheat (taking out probable winners like Driver and Baumbach), I wouldn’t argue. The silver lining is that it does make some of these categories more interesting.

Best Director

Nominees: Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse), Alma Hor’el (Honey Boy), Julius Onah (Luce), Ben and Josh Safdie (Uncut Gems), Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers)

Like Best Feature, 2018 saw no directors recognized get Academy attention. With Baumbach getting his Altman award and out of the running, that could certainly happen again as I don’t even have any of these directors in my top ten Oscar possibilities. Perhaps this could help spur chatter for the Safdies or Scafaria. Again… I wouldn’t bet on it.

Best Female Lead

Nominees: Karen Allen (Colewell), Hong Chau (Driveways), Elisabeth Moss (Her Smell), Mary Kay Place (Diane), Alfre Woodard (Clemency), Renee Zellweger (Judy)

Six out of nine winners here from 2010-2018 went onto win the Best Actress statue: Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Brie Larson (Room), and Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

Even with Johansson not included, it could be 7/10 as Zellweger is my current Oscar front runner. Woodard and Moss stand shots at nods. The other three need not shop for red carpet dresses.

One noticeable omission is Awkwafina in The Farewell, who many are predicting for Oscar attention. I currently had her on the outside looking in at sixth. That could slide when I update my estimates on Monday.

Best Male Lead

Nominees: Chris Galust (Give Me Liberty), Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Luce), Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse), Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems), Matthias Schoenarts (The Mustang)

Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), and Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) are the three Indie/Oscar recipients. Only in 2015 and (yes) 2018 did no nominees get Oscar nods…

I expect that to occur again. I believe only Sandler stands a chance, but it’s a reach based on severe competition.

Best Supporting Female

Nominees: Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers), Taylor Russell (Waves), Lauren Spencer (Give Me Liberty), Octavia Spencer (Luce), Shuzhen Zhou (The Farewell)

Four winners here have picked up Academy trophies – Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), and the past two winners Allison Janney (I, Tonya) and Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk).

With soft front runner Laura Dern in the Marriage Story special category thing, we could still see a third year in a row match with Lopez. Zhou and Spencer (to a lesser degree) may also find themselves in the Oscar mix.

And with Taylor Russell’s nod here, it’s a good time to mention that Waves really came up short with the Indies today. That doesn’t help its Oscar viability.

Best Supporting Male

Nominees: Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse), Noah Jupe (Honey Boy), Shia LaBeouf (Honey Boy), Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco), Wendell Pierce (Burning Cane)

This category is another ultra crowded one for Oscar attention, but Dafoe and LaBeouf are legit contenders for nods. Not so with the other three. The omission of Sterling K. Brown in Waves is a surprise.

There have been four Indie/Oscar victors this decade: Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), and Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). With Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Al Pacino (The Irishman) as likely favorites for the Academy, I wouldn’t expect a fifth match.

And there you have it, folks! My take on the Indies and which Oscar gems they could produce…

Oscar Watch: Luce

After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January, racial drama Luce has been doing decent limited release business over the past couple weeks. The film centers around a high school athletic prodigy (Kelvin Harrison Jr., in a performance drawing raves) and his adoptive parents played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. Octavia Spencer costars.

Luce drew its share of admirers on the festival circuit and it currently holds a 91% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Nigerian filmmaker Julius Onah directs with a screenplay he co-wrote along with JC Lee. It’s probably Original Screenplay where this holds a slight chance at being recognized. The likely scenario is this gets lost in the shuffle behind higher profile releases. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…