Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo
Director: Julius Onah
Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The best thing that can be said about Luce, Julius Onah’s adaptation of J.C. Lee’s Off-Broadway play, is that it taps into thorny issues regarding racism and class. However, it’s also a film which uses the blanket of uncertainty in order to hide the fact that it has very little to say. The stage origins are upfront and can be useful in dictating subtext, but here, the subtext is the text; with every character acting as a mouthpiece for the unfolding mystery. No one here behaves logically, which would be fine if the film was creating a heightened fantasy universe, but it also purports to be showing us the way we live now. Ultimately, the movie teases fascinating dichotomies only to throw up its hands to exclaim “What do YOU think?”, which isn’t necessarily boundary-pushing. On the contrary, it comes across more as lazy filmmaking.
The film begins with high school star student Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), turning in an essay to one of his teachers, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). Writing in the voice of philosopher Frantz Fanon, who advocated violence against colonialism, Luce positions himself as a dangerous alarmist to his teacher, even as he claims he was simply completing the assignment. What transpires is a series of incidents, monologues, and heated conversations which poke at our expectations but fail to truly cohere. As an adopted immigrant to white upperclass parents (played by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, respectively), Luce is the model for the American dream; an upstanding, successful, well-spoken, and ambitious young man of color who overcame childhood horrors. His paper could be considered an edgelord-style troll, but Wilson believes there are more nefarious intentions at work, cemented by her discovery of a bag of illegal fireworks inside his locker.
Luce is an investigation of identity, privilege, and racial prejudices, but it also doubles as a character-based thriller. Harrison effectively mines the titular character’s ambivalence by using his facial gestures and body language in order to throw us off the scent, and his scenes opposite Spencer are often gripping. Still, at nearly two hours, the film is much too schematic to keep us in suspense; especially when the dialogue feels arch to the point of frustration. There’s only so much skilled actors can do with material this stagey, and even though Roth and Watts have a few impactful moments as the two bewildered parents, their perspectives seems more like a prod at white privilege rather than actually something which grabbles with the complicated nature of adoption-based parenting. The fireworks scenario nods towards school-based violence, and there’s even a rape culture angle involving one one of Luce’s fellow classmates, Stephanie (Andrea Bang) who may have been sexually assaulted, but these threads are mostly red herrings. Instead, the film is content to toss out hot-button issues while failing to provide rational character psychology.
There are solid performances here, and clearly Onah wants to challenge us, but there’s a difference between a director withholding information and having no clear idea what his film is actually trying to communicate. Despite the impassioned arguments and reactionary rhetoric, this is a film trapped inside conceptual ideas rather something grappling with authentic social problems. Of course, cinematic license can be a powerful tool in reflecting truth; and even if we acknowledge cinema as a magic trick, one can still hope for something which brings concepts down to earth. Sadly, Luce mistakes Twitter-style reactions to race and class with actually telling a coherent story.