Luce, co-written and directed by Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox) and based on the play by J.C. Lee, is a thoroughly intense and thought-provoking thriller that couldn’t be more relevant right now. Powered by an intelligent script and a phenomenal cast, this is one film that will stick with you long after the credits roll, for all the right reasons.
The movie follows the eponymous protagonist, a high school student who was adopted from war-torn Africa by a well-meaning American couple, as suspicious mount against him when a teacher makes a startling discovery. Despite the relatively small-scale and personal nature of this story, it manages to address “big picture” ideas that so dominate the conversation in the news today.
Perhaps most impressive about this film, though, is that Onah and Lee obviously have a lot on their mind, and they are able to say it without the movie feeling overstuffed. Topics touched on by the film include race, discrimination, social class, treatment of people with disabilities, the disillusionment of youth, and the shortcomings of the education system, all explored through a thought-provoking commentary on violence.
The movie is also able to hold your attention for the entirety of its runtime because of Onah’s wonderful ability to build and maintain tension over the course of the film. There aren’t many big and flashy sequences in the movie, but Onah is able to make smaller bursts of excitement feel extremely intense in a way that will keep you on the edge of your seat and waiting for what is to come next.
Another strength of this film is its character development. The whole point of this movie is exploring the grey areas of morality, and the film does a phenomenal job of that. The movie doesn’t force a perspective down our throats, so we never know who is right and who is wrong. As a result, we feel like outsiders observing the situation and we can evaluate the characters’ actions and the ethical implications they have.
The cast is absolutely phenomenal as well. Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer both deliver great performances. Watts brings so much humanity and empathy to her character that really allows her to be the audience’s lens into the story. Spencer goes all out in her role, although she never feels over-the-top. Watching her and the character devolve over the course of the film is truly inspiring. Tim Roth also has a few great moments in the movie.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. seems poised for a breakout from this role. Although he has given some very powerful performances in the past, none has matched the emotional nuance and complexity of his eponymous turn in this film. He absolutely nails the mysterious ambiguity of the character. One moment, he’ll be this lovable, approachable kid, and the next moment you’ll be intimidated by his delivery. However, he is so subtle with the way he approaches the role that you will undeniably be stricken with awe at the breadth of his range.
The movie’s execution is really great too. Unlike most other stage-to-screen adaptations, this film is shot in a way that is very cinematic. Even though the movie is largely dialogue-driven, the filmmakers do a great job of using the means at their disposal to tell the story visually as well. The cinematography and editing, for example, are used to create a visual rhythm that helps build suspense. The score (one of the best and most unique of the year) also helps craft the tone.
This description does get thrown around a bit too often, it applies perfectly to Luce — there really isn’t anything else quite like this film. An unnerving blend of melodrama and slow-burn thriller, paired with some great performances, this movie shows that Onah is a filmmaker to watch, because if his growth is any indication, his next effort could be a masterpiece.
Luce is now playing in theaters.