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Luce ★★★★

Luce acutely raises issues arising from identity, origin, upbringing and expectations.

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Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Director: Julius Onah

Stars: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Tim Roth

Released: 19 July 2020 (UK)


Director and writer Julius Onah’s unsettling and powerful film Luce, is a unique combination of thriller and social drama. This timely examination of roles within class and race mesmerises with intricate mind games played out between its characters and with its audience.

Luce is a popular Grade A student at his High School in Arlington, Virginia. His upper middle class white parents, Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) adopted him from war torn Eritrea ten years before where he had been a child soldier. They believe that with their help he has, not without pain, triumphantly overcome his troubled past. His history teacher, Harriet  (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures), an African American, regards him as the ideal black scholar, impelling him constantly to live up to that perception. He is aware that her treatment of other class members is somewhat different. An essay in which Luce writes of violence in the cause of political activism and a discovery in his locker however affect Harriet’s view of her star pupil. She summons Amy to the school to discuss concerns about him with her, initialising a situation which spirals out of control.

The movie acutely raises issues arising from identity, origin, upbringing and expectations. As Luce, Kelvin Harrison Jr. (It Comes At Night) delivers an astonishing performance that encompasses the angst which all those factors, when conflicted, can invoke. His disturbing charm and suggestions of something darker is striking in its intensity. Octavia Spencer is outstanding as his potentially misguided or manipulative mentor who has problems of her own. Watts and Roth offer nuanced studies of middle class suburbanites facing possibly their worst parental fear, forcing them to consider drastic steps to protect their son or their vision of him.

Adapted from J.C Lee’s play of the same name and written by him with Onah, this does not betray its stage origins. There is no sense of theatre simply being transferred to cinema or an incongruous widening of its scope for the big screen. Scenes in a small meeting room are as cinematic as those in the assembly hall or sports field.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the title character in “Luce.” Credit: Jon Pack, Neon

Luce skilfully avoids a specific stance and the resolute defence of any key figure in it. The dynamics change throughout as dilemma is placed upon dilemma, creating sympathy for a particular character in one scene and condemnation for them in the next. Discussion inducing and perplexing, it respects the viewer enough to leave any ultimate conclusions to them.

Julius Onah impresses with a thought provoking piece which, like its titular character, is enigmatic, fascinating and complex.

Luce is currently showing on Sky Cinema and is available for download from selected sources.

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