Luce is a deeply layered, strategic thriller whose take on white guilt and black existentialism is always at a thoughtful boil. It’s one of the year’s very best films.
Let your mind ponder Luce, which might be the most provocative film of the year. There have been very few adapted stage plays recently (with the exception of musicals) that have hit a chord with critics. There are reasons for that, but it’s strange to think about since so many of us are craving original content with something to say that’s relevant, important, and even revisionist. In a century full of remakes, reboots, prequels, sequels, or works that have been adapted five times over, why can’t we embrace a stage play adaptation that has something interesting and different to say? Well, Julius Onah and JC Lee have the cure with a dramatic psychological thriller that is exhilarating and radically thought-provoking.
Luce refers to the film’s title character, played by newcomer Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Monsters and Men), who survived a deadly situation as a 10-year-old in war-torn Eritrea by being adopted by an affluent white couple, Peter and Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). Luce is everything they dreamed about when raising a child. He is a leader among his peers, captain of the debate team, a star track athlete at his expensive prep school. His teachers love him and are always under the eye of approval from the principal (Norbert Leo Butz of Bloodline fame) who is guiding him on his way to the IVY league. The one person who has her concerns about him is a teacher, Harriet Wilson (an exceptional Octavia Spencer), who brings them to Luce’s mother after he writes a paper on the French Colonist Revolutionary Franz Fanon, who she believes actively promoted violence as a necessary need for protest. She then violates Luce’s civil rights by going through his locker and finding a bag of illegal fireworks, handing them over to his mother, as a way to keep it from derailing his promising future.
Luce was directed by Julius Onah, which he co-wrote, and was adapted from JC Lee’s play of the same name. This is only Onah’s second feature behind the camera and considering it’s a follow-up to his critically drubbed The Cloverfield Paradox is quite an accomplishment. Their film has so much more going on underneath the surface than meets even the most critical eye. Lee’s adaptation of his own work is instantly fresh and endlessly interesting as it attempts to tell a story of white guilt, expected obedience, and black existentialism via a cerebral attack of predefined roles that are dropped in the middle of an affluent, lily-white world. Each main character is complex, shaped with such thoughtful care and each action by the cast. You may then forget where the film is headed, avoiding obvious clichés and tropes that most films rely on to move their story along.
The performances here are formidable and plentiful, to say the least. Spencer’s African-American teacher’s concern for school safety and trying to keep obediently in his own stereotype is well played. Roth, while the role is smaller than perceived going into the film, is effective as a man who loves his son, but didn’t sign up for any political statement. Watts, in what might be her best role and performance to date, is outstanding as a caring mother, who will do anything to protect Luce, yet is ultimately scared of not only her son’s actions but something she’s feeling guilty about that she can’t possibly understand.
Then there is Harrison’s Luce, whose cold, calculated attack on his surrounding peers and superiors is remarkably grounded. It embodies the cry out by several social movements in the decade. His character attacks the system, using psychological warfare, with a violent attack on mental health, from the inside and in a world that gives him the impression he should feel lucky to be there (you can take that as being saved from the horrors of a third-world country at war, or as movement of the power of black people can’t be denied in this crisp, clean, white world). He is good here, almost exceptional, with his best seen at the end of the film with Watts, as they come to a much deeper understanding than they once thought possible.
You could argue that, with a little understanding of Fanon’s teachings (even though the film really avoids verbally communicating the context of that, but does with underlining themes and meanings), Luce may be telegraphed — which is a frequent complaint that comes with films adapted from this type of source material. Luce though is so well written, performed, and multi-layered, the journey becomes much more psychologically suspenseful and engrossing, no matter its destination.
Luce is a strategic thriller whose characters are always set to a thoughtful boil. Lee’s scripted combination of white guilt and black existentialism is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s one of the year’s very best films and maybe the finest film adapted from a play this decade.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.