Adapting J C Lee’s Off-Broadway play, director Julius Onah offers a taut, thorny psychological thriller about a young, black immigrant who, seemingly, epitomizes the American Dream.
Adopted as an orphaned, seven year-old ‘child soldier’ from worn-torn Eritrea, Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) has made his white, middle-class, liberal parents, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), proud. He’s academically gifted, an accomplished debater and all-star athlete at an Arlington, Virginia, high school.
But when Luce’s stern history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), questions his provocative essay about West Indian radical political philosopher Frantz Fanon and, subsequently, finds a bag of illegal fireworks in his locker, Luce’s reputation is called into question.
Parent-teacher confrontations, monitored by the principal (Norbert Leo Butz), raise pertinent questions about racial identity and prejudice.
While the Edgars argue about how to cope with Ms. Wilson’s accusations, there’s a meandering subplot involving Luce’s Chinese-American girlfriend, Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang), who may have been sexually assaulted at a party.
Another subplot concerns Ms. Wilson’s emotionally unstable sister, Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake), and a third revolves around Luce’s pal, DeShaun (Astro), who was kicked off the track team for drug-related offenses.
Basically, what’s at stake here is: What happens to youngsters who are saddled with unrealistically high expectations? Is Luce a schemer or a sympathetic protagonist? Whom to believe? And where does nature vs, nurture come in?
Nigerian-born director Julius Onah (“The Cloverfield Paradox”) ramps up the suspense of this contemporary morality tale, while everyone in the ensemble is uniformly convincing in their respective roles.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Luce” is a simmering, secretive, somber 6 – stumbling on its on sometimes inexplicable ambiguity.