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Non-Review Review: Luce

Luce is a compelling dialogue-driven thriller, anchored in a set of impressive performances and a meaty script.

At its core, Luce is a study of integration and idealism. It touches on the question of identity, that established by an individual and that imposed by the people around them. Luce derives its title and its tension from its lead character, a promising young African American student. Adopted by an upper-middle class white couple and rescued from his past as a child soldier, Luce has become an exemplar. He is an all-star debater, an impressive academic student, a successful athlete. He is loved by both the faculty and his fellow students. To hear the other characters talk about him, Luce is just about perfect.

Getting schooled.

Naturally, Luce challenges that idea. Luce invites the audience to wonder whether the title character really is everything that everybody else believes him to be. More than that, the film interrogates why so many people seem to need Luce to be an exemplar. The film is a fraught push-and-pull as questions are raised about Luce. When the honours student turns in an inflammatory essay and when fireworks with the explosive power of a shotgun are found in his locker, the characters around Luce find themselves asking if they understand the teenager, or if they ever could.

The result is a tense and claustrophobic drama, as the characters navigating these accusations and insinuations try to constantly reconfigure their understanding of the title character. It’s a remarkable push-and-pull, elevated by some very potent themes and a wealth of strong performances.

Keeping track.

Luce originated as a stage play. In fact, writer J. C. Lee adapted his own work for the screen in colloboration with director Julius Onah. To give Onah some credit, Luce makes a point to emphasise its use of cinematic storytelling. The film includes several montages to establish mood, uses abridged scenes to control pace and films a variety of locations to avoid seeming too “stagy.” More than that, Onah builds a palpable and mounting sense of dread through his use of cinematic language; intense close-ups on inscrutable faces, cannily timed cuts, the ominous rising score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury.

At the same time, Luce feels very much like an adaptation of a piece of theatre. That was how the piece was designed, and there is only so far that it can be pushed beyond that template. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. “Stagy” can often feel like a synonym for “staid”, when applied to films like Fences that luxuriate in the long scenes and the slower pacing associated with stage productions. However, there is something to be said for the art of turning the camera on talented actors and watching them interact with one another.

Worst parent-teacher meeting ever.

Doubt is perhaps the best point of comparison to Luce. After all, both works are anchored in strong central performances and rooted in ambiguity. Most of the characters in Luce spend their time trying to make sense of the title character, to decide whether these small deviations in behaviour are a cause for concern or simply the result of an awkward double-standard and poor timing. Battle lines are drawn early on. “If you’re accusing him, think carefully about whose side you’re on,” Luce’s adopted mother, Amy, warns her husband, Pete.

Part of the beauty of Luce, and what sustains the film over its two-hour runtime, is how those lines keep shifting. Characters seem to go back-and-forth in their assessment of Luce. Initially, Pete seems dismissive of any complaints against his adopted son. However, when confronted with the facts, he aggressively interrogates his son. However, presented with exculpatory evidence, he seems eager to move on as if nothing had happened. Amy finds herself caught in a push-and-pull relationship with her husband; she’s concerned when he’s dismissive, and she’s defensive when he’s aggressive.

The parents’ trap.

The constantly shifting dynamic between Pete and Amy – which seems shaped as much by their relationship to each other as to their attachment to their son – hints at some of the bigger ideas of Luce. The film is fundamentally about how the larger world sees Luce, and whether that has anything to do with who Luce actually is, as opposed to what the world wants Luce to be. “Luce is one of our best,” he teacher Harriet Wilson explains. “An important example to the school.” She later expands on the sentiment, “Who he is is too important to this school for him to f!?k it. He can’t f!?k it up.”

Luce is both black and an immigrant. He explains early on that his favourite holiday is Independence Day, because of the American ideals that it represents. Preparing a big speech for the end of the year, Luce argues, “I realised how lucky I am to be an American. Because here I got a chance to start over, to redefine myself. Here we can be who choose. Here…” The film leaves a lot of ambiguity. Does Luce actually believe this? Or is Luce simply telling the audience what they want to hear? Is he truly free and independent? Or has he been placed in a box?

The mother of all issues.

The film repeatedly underscores the expectations and pressures placed on Luce, and how they have transformed him into a symbol instead of a person. Discussing another athlete who was booted off the team for drug possession, his teammate interjects, “He’s like black black.” Luce responds, “Then what am I?” There is an awkward pause. “You’re like… Luce.” Another classmate describes him as “Motherf!?kin’ Nelson Mendela.” When the coach decides to make Luce captain, Luce reflects, “It’s dope. He says I’d be a good example for other students.”

This is what Luce is to a lot of the people around him. He is a blank slate onto which any number of identities might be projected; the perfect son, the model student, the representation of the American Dream. Luce repeatedly stresses how many people are rooting for Luce’s success, not necessarily as an expression of their faith in him, but as validation of some kind or another. One of the cannier aspects of Luce, and of Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s performance, is how much its protagonist understands this.

Any which way but Luce’s.

Luce is very adept at code-switching, at transforming himself dramatically from one moment to the next, to fit into what his audience wants from him. Indeed, this is the source of much of the film’s tension, and grants the film a lot of weight. The kind of skills that Luce has had to cultivate to survive in this environment also make him inherently untrustworthy. Luce can pivot on a moment into whatever any other person wants him to be, which both accounts for his success despite institutional prejudice and creates an uncanny (almost dead-eyed psychopathic) quality.

So much of Luce hinges on ambiguity. Repeatedly, characters have arguments that are not so much about the literal content of what was said, but instead about the specifics of how it was said. Trying to explain why Wilson makes him uncomfortable, Luce is unable to point to a specific quote. “It’s how she says it,” he tells his parents. Later on, when Amy cites her son’s misgivings about Wilson, Pete is adamant that all of this is based on their son’s subjective account. “Did you see or hear what she did to that girl?” he asks when Amy reference’s her son’s discussion of Wilson’s alleged bullying of another student.

A class act.

This ambiguity can be a hard sell. Indeed, there are points where Luce seems deliberately obfuscatory. The film only fleetingly alludes to the content of Luce’s inflammatory essay without articulating any specifics. This makes it hard to determine whether Wilson is overreacting, or whether it is reasonably raising some read flags. “I know the difference between miscommunication and provocation,” Wilson states, but the audience is never allowed to make that determination, and only has second-hand information. Then again, the film suggests this is inessential; it’s heavily suggested that even Amy never read her son’s essay.

Luce benefits from a strong set of central performances from a reliable cast of adult actors. Octavia Spencer gets to sink her teeth into the role of Wilson, the teacher who has long been supportive of Luce, but who finds herself doubting the young man. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth are also compelling as Luce’s parents, who find themselves forced to navigate the complexities of their relationship with one another as much as with Luce himself. The younger cast is perhaps a bit less polished, but impressive nonetheless; especially Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the title role and Andrea Bang in a supporting performance.

Luce is a fascinating, compelling, and unsettling social thriller; one without any easy answers.

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