Starring-Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison, Jr.
Scott’s Review #1,122
Reviewed March 16, 2021
Oftentimes unpleasant with shifting character allegiances, Luce (2019) is a painful look at race relations. The clever nuance is the relationships between people of the same race. Superior acting rises the film above just simply a nice idea as heavyweights like Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts lend credibility to a small indie film.
The result is sometimes muddied waters and an unclear direction but the effort is exceptional and a worthy subject matter in modern times.
The film is down and dirty and makes no apologies for what it’s dissecting. The co-writer and director, Julius Onah, a Nigerian-American man, offers glimpses of grandeur, and definitely impossible to guess how it will end. We wonder if he bases the story on his own very real experiences and I am eager to see what projects he comes up with in the future.
Some aspects of the film I found implausible if not logically impossible and not every point adds up or is successfully outlined. But the effort and the balance of drama, thrills, and social issues are definitely there for the taking.
I realized I was rooting throughout for one character and then suddenly I was disappointed in their actions and my allegiance shifted to another of the principal characters. This is key and a positive to a good character-driven film. At times though the character’s actions are questionable and more than one mighty shake of the head in disbelief will be experienced.
Liberal-minded parents Amy (Watts) and Peter Edgar (Eli Roth) have adopted Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a child of refuge and a dangerous third-world country. It is referenced that they have spent years in therapy to repair the damage he has suffered as a child. It is implied he learned to shoot and possibly kill at a young age. Now a teenager, and Americanized, Luce is popular in high school and a star scholar and track star.
Life is good. Or is it?
The film, based on the play of the same name by J.C. Lee, is shot nothing like a play and is conventionally shot.
Luce writes and submits an extremely disturbing essay that forces the Edgars to reconsider their marriage and their family after it is brought to their attention by his teacher.
He challenges and makes an enemy of this teacher, Harriet Wilson (Spencer) who is extremely tough on students of color, being black herself. She snoops through one student’s locker and finds drugs, ratting on him and blowing his chances for a scholarship. When she finds fireworks in Luce’s locker she is appalled and makes it her mission to entangle his parents but could she have planted them herself?
Is she out to get Luce, jealous of his success when she has had to struggle for hers? Tensions mount between Harriet and Luce as the story unfolds.
The acting is powerful all around the canvas but Harrison and Spencer deliver the standout performances- nearly brilliant. Watts and Roth are good too but with more standard portrayals.
Excellent is how we get to know each of the four principles in detail. Harriet at first appears a tough shrew, but her personal life makes her sympathetic. She attempts to care for her mentally ill sister herself but after a humiliating scene at school is forced to return her to a home.
Suddenly, I was a fan of Harriet, Later, I was disappointed in Luce and Amy, who I thought I was intended to root for. The film is topsy turvy and I enjoyed this juicy infusion of not knowing what was to come next.
When a female classmate of Luce’s who harbors an enormous secret takes center stage the roller-coaster ride becomes even bumpier.
I wish there were more films of a similar nature as Luce (2019) to hit mainstream theaters. It provokes thought and opinion while featuring social problems, pre-conceived notions, and trusting one’s merits. I just wish the puzzle had been solved in a more satisfying way than it was.
Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Julius Onah, Best Male Lead-Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Best Supporting Female-Octavia Spencer