Luce challenges us to evaluate our assumptions
Director Julius Onah’s Luce trades on the perplexing challenge of accurately accessing character, even in individuals known quite well and occasionally on public display. Add to that a Rashomon factor, that is, the subjective trap for everyone of their own status and personality, and the complications multiply, the film’s audience included as we second guess our own judgments.
The actions inviting interpretation—negative or positive—involve the title character, Luce, an Eritrean seven-year-old boy when he’s brought to the U.S. by Amy and Peter Edgar. Now a senior in high school, he’s a model student and person, dignified and level-headed. Following an assignment by his government/social studies teacher Harriet Wilson, Luce writes a research paper in the persona of the West Indies revolutionary Frantz Fanon advocating violence. Harriet finds dangerous fireworks in Luce’s locker, contacts his mother, and soon the family, Harriet, classmates, and the school principal are in a confrontational attempt to confirm or disprove concern.
Based on J.C. Lee’s play and adapted by Lee and director Onah, Luce, ironically meaning Light, refuses to reveal truths easily. Several scenes feel highly manipulative and manufactured, too “written” for believability. And, yet, given past and recent tragedies, clearly some individuals hide a shadow life quite effectively, raising the film’s tension and questions about interpretations of Luce’s behavior. There is an offensive subplot involving Harriet’s unhinged sister Rosemary. One scene in particular strikes me as lewdly sensationalistic and unnecessary to advance the story.
The drama works because of the convincing performances, even when some events feel false. Credit to Naomi Watts as Luce’s mother, Tim Roth as the father, Octavia Spencer as Harriet, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Luce. Larkin Seiple’s cinematography is merely serviceable (with too many bull’s eye compositions; that is, the focus kept in the frame’s center.) Similarly, the music is adequate but not exceptional. Those reservations and that praise for acting in mind, the comments on race, expectations, stereotype traps, privilege, and the danger of unexamined assumptions—all resonate and deserve immediate attention.