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First run Theater cinema

Luce is the third feature from director Julius Onah (The Girl Is in Trouble, The Cloverfield Paradox). Based on the play by J.C. Lee, the film centers on a popular and charismatic black immigrant high school kid. An accomplished student, athlete, public speaker, and debater, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) represents everything both progressive and conservative white Americans want to believe about the American Dream, but Luce doesn’t always relish his role as a poster boy for how high-achieving immigrants or  “good" black people should behave. That’s really all we can know for sure about Luce, because this story is told, not from his perspective, but that of his parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) who adopted him from war-torn Eritrea when he was seven years old, and his history teacher (Octavia Spencer), who isn’t so sure he’s the warm, bright light everyone else believes him to be.

Luce is structured like a mystery, but it’s not meant as a puzzle for audiences to solve. This is the kind of picture designed to inspire post-movie conversations that can last all night. Built into the suspenseful narrative is a delicious ambiguity that both enables the film’s key ideas and questions to rise to the surface without ever becoming didactic, and captures the feeling every parent or teacher of a teenager must have at least some of the time: “is this kid who I thought I knew so well really the person I think he is?” 

The movie’s theatrical origins are unmistakable, this is essentially the kind of provocative, issue-driven four-hander that occupies most off-Broadway stages, but nothing about the adaptation feels uncinematic. Most of the characters are so well devised that the dialogue, even when thematically on-the-nose, feels entirely credible coming out of their mouths. Spencer plays a black woman in academia who believes deeply, and lives every day, the historical lessons she imparts to her students. Nothing about her words or actions feels the least bit out of step with who this woman is. Similarly, Watts plays the liberal white mother as a fully realized individual who never comes across as a cliché or a vehicle for conveying a writer’s ideas. 

The picture’s weak link is Roth’s character. It is not made clear at the beginning where Luce’s adopted father is on his mid-life emotional journey; so when things happen to this family, we can’t fully understand what he’s feeling or comprehend his reactions. I have no idea if the play had the same issue, but I’d be surprised if the father isn’t more central to the narrative in the play (which undoubtedly has fewer characters).

Luce isn’t deep but it confronts a wide range of issues—both contemporary and timeless. It’s reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s masterpiece Caché (2005) in subject matter, point of view, and ambiguity—though Luce is far less abstruse than anything Haneke ever made. Onah and Lee lure us in by convincing us their film will provide us with some kind of answer to the narrative questions they pose; yet as the story unfolds they get us thinking less about that, and start pondering more substantive inquiry.

Twitter Capsule:
Onah and Lee and their first-rate cast craft a riveting, suspenseful, and provocative issue-driven mystery drama that is not designed as a puzzle to solve but as a think-piece to inspire many post-movie conversations, which it surely will.

Directed by Julius Onah
Produced by Julius Onah, John Baker, and Andrew Yang

Screenplay by J.C. Lee and Julius Onah
Based on the play by J.C. Lee

With: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea Bang, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Omar Shariff Brunson Jr., Noah Gaynor, Astro, and Christopher Mann

Cinematography: Larkin Seiple
Editing: Madeleine Gavin
Music: Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury

Runtime: 109 min
Release Date: 07 November 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1