Luce is a film about a high school student who was adopted from war torn Eritrea at age 10. His parents have raised him to be the best that he can be, but an essay he submits fills one of his teachers with suspicions that he may become violent. The incident sparks arguments and fights, which spiral out of control. The film stars Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, and Tim Roth. It is co-written and directed by Julius Onah.
There are deep layers to this film. Layers that you will see coming, layers that are foreshadowed, layers not revealed until the resolution, and even deeper layers that you have to unpack yourself after the viewing. It's like a puzzle box that you think you've solved until you see another opening somewhere you weren't looking for it.
I love meaty domestic dramas, just as much as I love mysteries. Luce has the best of those worlds. All at once it is as simple as an overachiever being threatened with life altering news, something that could shatter his perfect persona, but as deep as that over-achiever having spent the first ten years of his life as a child soldier in a war zone, having had to be deprogrammed for years afterward. Add on more and more and more as the other characters are revealed as well. The build up is intense, but never overwhelming because it was always just below the surface, bubbling there, waiting.
While the film uses dialogue to build its scenes, it still feels dynamic. Luce is never feels stuck in one place as can happen in stage to screen adaptations. It helps a great deal that Luce, the character, is a runner, which becomes a runner and metaphor in the film. We see him run to think things through, to machinate, to understand his conflicting feelings. While the others talk it through, he runs it out.
The running scenes are a testament to Kelvin Harris, Jr.'s stellar performance. He's able to mold his face depending on the people he's manipulating. It's a performance within a performance as he develops the different masks he has to wear in different situations. When he's at rest we can almost see the cracks in his "good son" persona. Then, when he takes on Ms. Wilson, we see his 100 watt smile that hides his utter disdain of her. He keeps that mask up especially around her because she's the only one who believe's he's capable of what she's accusing him of.
That leads us to Octavia Spencer who plays Harriet Wilson. She has her own masks. She's forced to code switch between her home and work life. When we see her with her mentally ill sister, she's in the old mode, the comfortable mode, but as soon as she's teaching or speaking with a colleague, she's at an elevated level of erudite. She's built herself a wall so that people will see her intelligence first and her race and gender second. It's why she's so hard on the students of color and women who take her class. She's attempting to push them beyond what people see. It's an incredibly meaty role for Spencer and one in which she is devastatingly good.
With a brilliant script and intuitive visual language by Julius Onah, Luce is a great movie. Add in spectacular performances by a phenomenal cast and you have a must see film. If, like me, you needed a breather after the long, loud summer explosion, check out Luce and see the awe-inspiring special effect that is inherent in great storytelling. See Luce now and see it often, you won't want to miss a single clue.