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Review: Luce

August 9, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

There are movies of the moment, and then there is Luce, a race-based dramatic thriller that ignited plenty of conversations at Sundance and weaves so many hot button issues into its narrative that it can’t help but feel heavy-handed.

The film centres around Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a teenaged refugee from war-torn Eritrea who is the adoptive son of Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth), a well-off white couple. Luce is a star pupil at his high school. He gets good grades, is an invaluable part of the football team, and keeps being invited to deliver speeches.

But there’s one teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who treats him differently. She holds him to a different standard, which Luce assumes is because they are both African-American, and she wants to protect him from the stereotypes that impact young black men. But when Harriet reads Luce’s essay for one of her class assignments, which he wrote from the perspective of the Marxist revolutionary Frantz Fanon who argued that violence is justifiable as a means to enact social change, she becomes worried that Luce is potentially dangerous, and at the very least an extremist sympathizer.

Harriet searches his locker and finds a bag of highly explosive illegal fireworks, an incident that forces Amy and Peter to ask uncomfortable questions about their own son, who was trained as a child soldier before coming to America. Luce and Harriet butt heads, and enter into a game of cat and mouse that begins as a war of words but soon extends beyond mind games, as Harriet becomes convinced that the school’s star pupil is a budding domestic terrorist. This conflict between student and teacher engulfs a variety of players, including Luce’s ex-girlfriend Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang) and his buddies from the football team, who all carry with them the guilt of something that happened at a house party.

Directed by Julius Onah and based on a play by J.C. Lee, who adapted his own work for the screen and co-wrote the screenplay with Onah, Luce is the sort of film that packs a lot into under two hours. In no short order, the subjects the film tackles include racism, tokenism, domestic terrorism, free speech, identity politics, white privilege, male privilege, rape culture, toxic masculinity, false rape accusations, mental illness, police brutality, violence as a form of activism, and the white adoption of black kids. It keeps jumping between these themes, and just when it seems we have it figured out, the film pulls the rug out from under us to provide a contradictory piece of information.

The question we are left with is, is Luce a cunning sociopath manipulating everyone around him and meticulously pulling their strings for his own benefit? From what we see, he is able to lie with ease, has no qualms with weaponizing his natural charm to get what he wants, and lacks any outward signs of anxiety or PTSD, despite the fact that we are repeatedly told he endured great trauma in his childhood and had to go through years of therapy to recover. All of these things could certainly suggest a level of sociopathy.

Or is Luce simply a kid trying to get ahead who has become the victim of a system that is treating him like a token and putting unfair expectations upon him? Is Harriet holding him to impossible standards because of his skin colour? Does Luce have a personal vendetta against Harriet, or is it actually the other way around? There is some tension in the film as we try to figure out exactly where the truth lies, but the screenplay also has several loose ends and is riddled with apparent plot holes, seeming more like it was designed simply to tap into the zeitgeist by touching on an endless array of hot button issues.

This could have made for a challenging piece of cinema, but instead it’s done in a way that just feels sort of glib, like a series of “gotcha” moments in a debate that are meant to provoke without really having much deeper meaning. The problem is that the film’s message gets muddled in a way that makes it hard to discern what it is trying to say, or even whose side it is on. Ambiguity can be a good thing, but here it starts to feel counter-productive. Many of these same themes were also ironically explored much better in Joseph Kahn’s brilliant battle rap satire Bodied.

The film is still somewhat engaging to watch in a pulpy sort of way, and it is well acted by the talented cast. Naomi Watts does solid work here, and Octavia Spencer is as good as is to be expected, and really tears into the material. Kelvin Harrison Jr. delivers a charismatic and carefully controlled performance that suggests a promising career ahead of him. But Luce is trying so hard to be a “movie of the moment” that it actually ends up undercutting and shortchanging some of its core themes, making this an alright but overhyped melodrama that often unfolds like a thriller.

Luce is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

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