By Karen Gordon
On the surface, Luce is a study of race and privilege in contemporary America. But it’s more broadly and more subtly about family relationships and the psychological deals we make with others and ourselves.
Based on the 2013 play by J.C. Lee (who did also did the screen adaptation) and directed by Julius Onah, it is a sometimes stage-like but effective dive into questions of trust and the nature of social responsibility.
Luce, (pronounced like loose), outstandingly played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., is a superstar in his school. Handsome, articulate, high achieving and popular with almost everyone.
Luce is the only child of Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), a successful and seemingly happy couple who have created a warm and nurturing stable upper middle class family. He’s black, they’re white. Amy and Peter adopted Luce from a war zone in Africa when he was about 7 years old. And the question of how that might have affected him hovers over the movie.
Luce is a favourite of the principal, Mr. Towson (Norbert Leo Butz), who sees a him as a successful student, and the leading example of the best the school can achieve. As graduation approaches, he chooses Luce to be the valedictorian.
But one of the teachers isn’t so sure. Miss Wilson (Octavia Spencer), is deeply suspicious of Luce. Miss Wilson’s history lessons, or the ones we see, lean hard on how history has treated minorities.
She calls Amy in for a private meeting and shows her an assignment he handed in that could indicate that he has a violent and anarchistic streak. And she’s secretly searched his locker and found evidence that might support her theory.
When confronted by his mother, Luce says Miss Wilson treats each of her students like stereotypes and violates their privacy to make points about social issues that reflect her personal viewpoint. And she’s especially hard on the black students, sometimes causing life altering problems. Because of her, one of Luce’s less academically gifted friends has lost a scholarship, which, has already put a nail in his career coffin.
Amy and Peter love their son, but Miss Wilson makes a strong enough case and provides enough evidence to rattle their perception. Is he the solid citizen, kind, loving child they believe? With his damaging war experiences, is he a sociopath who’s playing them, someone capable of making everyone believe what he wants them to believe? Or is he, with his early success and promising future, the object of a campaign by a teacher with her own issues?
It’s a dream cast and everyone does excellent work here in a story that quite subtly keeps shifting perspectives. But there are flaws. Lee clearly has some points he wants to make, and in doing sometimes creates problems for himself. There are times when he torques the narrative in some overly pointed scenes, or has a character react in a way that seems contrived to move the narrative in a hard direction as opposed to being a fluid and believable reaction to events.
Even still, the places he wants us to look are valid. Luce is a terrifically layered drama that aims high and deep, and achieves all of that. As you might imagine, it touches on class and race issues. But it also manages to be a personal drama that evokes questions about who we are, and what we owe to ourselves and others.
Our relationships, even our most intimate, are based on trust built through day-to-day familiarity, and feelings of bonding and love. But we all we all have aspects of ourselves that we keep to ourselves or only selectively show.
And what about Luce, a young man who appears to have it all and is on the cusp of defining his future? What does he owe anyone as he sorts it all out?
It’s an intriguing question, one of many that are posited but not necessarily answered at the end of the film.
Luce. Directed by Julius Onah and written by J.C. Lee. Starring Naomi Watts, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Octavia Spencer. Opens wide, Friday, August 9.