[Review] ‘LUCE’ – no easy answers in this deliciously frustrating​ social thriller

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James Clay // Film Critic

LUCE

Rated R, 109 minutes.
Director: Julius Onah
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth

LUCE is a film with an intention to provoke. It takes the immigrant narrative and spins it around with ethical questions that society places in the hands of those who have come to America in search of a better life. Well, star student Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) didn’t necessarily ask for that life when his parents, Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), removed him for his war-torn country as he was beginning to come of age. From the outside looking in, he’s flourishing in sports and academia. But when his teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), “misinterprets” an assignment Luce wrote into extremist propaganda, this sets off a domino effect of events that the film doesn’t fully come to grips with during its third act. 

Director Julius Onah’s (CLOVER FIELD PARADOX) film – co-written and based off the play by J.C. Lee – isn’t a search for answers as it gaslights its’ audience into a Rorschach test minefield of loaded questions and issues. These revolve around social expectations, appearance for people of color, and a traditional white savior narrative (a la THE BLIND SIDE). The film also includes a gripping ensemble. It features Spencer challenging herself in a fearless performance; Watts keeping her streak of reliability in tact; Roth making low-key brilliant choices as a father who questions his own culpability; and Harrison Jr., who breaks out in a role built for linguistics nerds. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether to go left, right, or just head back home. 

The force that sets the plot into motion revolves around an essay assuming the voice of a historical figure. Luce chooses Frantz Fanon, the Marxist philosopher who advocates for violence in the face of colonialism. This all but terrifies Wilson, who uses her suspicions to justify an unauthorized search of Luce’s locker where she finds fireworks, phones his parents and comes close to assassinating his reputation based off of a hunch. Wherever you stand on the issues the film presents, we all have to ask ourselves what role we play in systemic issues surrounding expectations, education, immigration, representation, and stereotyping. The film consists of scene after scene of pieces that keep adding to a giant puzzle that winds up being an M.C. Esher-level of entanglements. They aren’t fully reckoned with, but it’s a hell of a civics lesson. 

Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts in LUCE (photo courtesy NEON)

Luce’s image is built around his past, and the trauma his parents helped him overcome. He’s a refugee that has certain expectations to be met in the public eye; this is a lot of pressure for anybody, let alone a person who is presupposed to be an outsider. In the public light, he’s either going to be framed as a hero or a monster. There are no shades of grey, and his parents don’t know whether to defend or condemn their son. The film finds most of its thrills in dissecting every mannerism written on Luce’s face. Is he just a kid who’s cracking under pressure, or a sociopath? It’s up to us to decide where we stand. Some of the material works better than others, but the intrigue of LUCE is picking apart the systemic issues that are fluttered about the film. 

LUCE is a film packed to the gills with thematic content – so much there will and should be mountains of thesis papers written dissecting the semiotics placed within each frame. How radical is Luce? Is he a poster child for war-torn violence, or a success story? Each character in the film has their role to play, and their motivations for their actions never become quite clear. Onah’s film is deliciously frustrating material that’s a step up from his previous effort (CLOVERFIELD: PARADOX). It bursts with a fervor for debating issues, even if the setup is stronger than the payoff. 

Grade: B