Movie Review - Luce

Adapting J.C. Lee's play, director and co-writer Julius Onah has put to screen a treatise on race relations, not only between black people and white people but also between black people and other black people. It seems to be a film all about perception and expectation. Where it veers is into a portrait of a sociopath. This is fine, if Onah wanted to incorporate a thriller aspect to this film, which could be and is in fact the point of the material that black men can be seen as scary or be accused of being scary for nothing more than they are black. Lee and Onah's screenplay adds some credence to the young black man in question here being seen or accused of being scary, which makes the debate a bit more compelling. However, I feel like the film is completely derailed with a subplot that probably should have been the main plot.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. (It Comes At Night and Monsters and Men) stars as Luce Edgar, a high school student who is black but who lives with his white adopted parents in a nice, suburban home in a fairly wealthy neighborhood. He was born in a war-torn country, possibly one in Africa. He lived in that country until he was around 7. He's now completely assimilated into American culture and things seem fine. He's a popular track star. He's on the debate team. Everybody seems to love him, but there are issues bubbling underneath the surface. A few of the issues seem connected to his teacher and those issues do stem or relate to his identity.

Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures and The Help) co-stars as Harriet Wilson, the teacher in question who teaches political science, history or something of that sort. She's a very stern teacher, very serious and quite humorless. Luce calls her a bitch behind her back and to his parents who laugh about it. However, the reason she is that way is due to family issues. She has a sister with mental illness problems, which has depressed and hardened her. She has gotten flap from her students because she has intervened in certain situations that have personally affected them. Her intentions though are good.

There are a couple of students in particular who have been personally affected. Both of whom have already been affected prior to the start of this film. What happened to them prompts Luce to do some intervening of his own. The film raises a question from the beginning and throughout of whether or not Luce is guilty of any wrongdoing. The film never directly addresses his guilt, but it does seem obvious even before the ending that he is culpable in what appears to be retaliation against Harriet. The retaliation would make more sense if it was just about what happens to the first student who is Luce's friend, DeShaun, played by Brian Bradley aka Astro (Earth to Echo and See You Yesterday).

However, the film reveals what happened to a second student and how the film handles it totally derails this narrative. Without spoiling too much, the film reveals that a student was sexually assaulted, although there's some question as to whether or not the sexual assault even occurred. Yet, the indication is that it did happen, but the film completely brushes over it or brushes it under the rug, making it not just a subplot but a mere plot-device or a weapon later in the narrative. In my mind, that sexual assault plot should have been the main plot or indeed the true focus of this film. The fact that it's overlooked completely threw me off of this film.

What also threw me off is the titular character himself. As the film progressed, Luce felt less and less like an actual person and more like a contrived character for dramatics sake. He never totally felt real to me, especially by the end. It all could have been due to the clear facade he put up to mask his intentions regarding his retaliation against his teacher, but there are other things about him that rang false. In one scene, Luce's adopted mother, Amy, played by Oscar-nominee Naomi Watts (21 Grams and Mulholland Drive), tells him that they are trying to protect him and Luce responds that it might be his adopted parents from whom he needs protection, which makes no sense.

There's some later argument about his parents' expectations on him, expectations to be perfect. Those expectations are never defined. Amy and her husband, Peter, played by Tim Roth (The Hateful Eight and The Planet of the Apes), don't express any of these expectations in the film that we see. They come across as more than supportive, so Luce's comment falls completely flat.

Rated R for language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 49 mins.


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