Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Movie Review: Luce

Luce **** / *****
Directed by: Julius Onah.
Written by: J.C. Lee and Julius Onah based on the play by Lee.
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce Edgar), Naomi Watts (Amy Edgar), Octavia Spencer (Harriet Wilson), Tim Roth (Peter Edgar), Norbert Leo Butz (Dan Towson), Andrea Bang (Stephanie Kim), Marsha Stephanie Blake (Rosemary Wilson), Omar Shariff Brunson Jr. (Corey Johnson), Noah Gaynor (Kenny Orlicki), Astro (DeShaun Meeks), Christopher Mann (Coach Reeves).
Luce is a deliberate provocation to its audience – a film that wants you to question just about everything it shows you, and challenges you to figure out where you stand, and why – and perhaps confronting your own complicated feelings on race, class and #MeToo. The film has its roots on the stage – the original production was back in 2013 – and you can tell that fairly early on, as this is a movie made up mainly of two-hander scenes – scenes in which the character’s debate and verbally spar with each other. It’s the type of thing David Mamet used to write decades ago (not so much recently) – and provides no easy answers to its central questions.
The title character is 17-year-old Luce (a remarkable Kelvin Harrison Jr., outdoing his excellent work in It Comes at Night). He was a child solider in Africa, when he was adopted at the age of 7 by his do-gooder, white liberal parents – Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), and brought back to Virginia to be raised. A lot of trouble with Luce is alluded to – his nightmares, etc. – that have seemingly been worked through. When we meet Luce, he is pretty much perfect – the smiling, charming, straight-A student, and star athlete – future valedictorian, beloved by everyone at the school. He is so perfect in fact, that you start to wonder if he’s too perfect. Certainly his government/history teacher – Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) begins to suspect so.
The trouble starts with an essay and some fireworks. The assignment is to write an essay from the point-of-view of an historical figure, and Luce does just that – writing from the point-of-view of violent revolutionary Frantz Fanon all too convincingly, which worries Harriet given Luce’s early childhood. When she finds some illegal fireworks in his locker, she calls Amy in for a conference. And thus starts a film in which all the character’s dance around the truth, all of whom have secrets they are trying to keep, and will be exposed – or confessed – at some point. Things get more complicated when other students become involved – DeShaun (Astro), a teammate of Luce’s that Wilson gets thrown off the team, ruining his chance at a scholarship, and especially Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang) – Luce’s ex-girlfriend, of whom wild rumors about a party have been flying around the school.
Harrison is great in the title role. He is perfect at playing this guy who seems so perfect, that you cannot help but wonder – at least a little – if perhaps it’s an act. Certainly, he says some things that can be taken in different ways – perhaps it’s a lighthearted comment, or maybe it’s a threat, who’s to say? There are only two moments in the film where Luce isn’t “on” – isn’t somehow putting on a performance for other people. The first is when he practices a speech about coming to America with no one around, and he starts to cry (it’s telling, that later when he gives this same speech to an audience, he doesn’t cry – he plays the same thing off as light hearted) – and the other is the last shot of the movie, which you can read in any way you want to. Harrison is matched by great performances by Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer. Watts in particular has a journey to go on in the film – she opens the movie at least on the surface with the perfect life, although as the film progresses, it becomes clear that she is somewhat lying to herself about that. She has convinced herself that everything is fine – that Luce is perfect and “better” and “healed” – but perhaps he isn’t. Her worldview starts to crumble as the film progresses – but she will go to great lengths to pretend it’s still going. For Spencer, this is perhaps the most complex role of her career. Harriet may well be right about Luce – and yet wrong about so much else, wrong in the way she goes about handling things and the decisions she makes. It’s a complex performance – and the best I’ve seen Spencer give in her career. Andrea Bang only has one key scene – with Watts – but it’s a stunner as well. You do wish that an actor as good as Tim Roth were given slightly more to do here – his role is underwritten, but he does whatever he can with the role anyway.
In the end, Luce doesn’t tell you what to think – doesn’t hold your handle, and reassure you of anything. It is a complex film about race and identity – one that doesn’t wrap everything up, and leaves you grappling with its questions. Yes, the film is deliberately provocative – it wants to shock, and it does. But the questions its asks need asking.


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