Political and societal tension is at an all time high in 2019. While many use cinema, or art in general, to escape reality, others may turn to it for guidance. Luce is an example of the latter, wherein it provides thought provoking questions to its audience rather than fluffed up solutions. This film can absolutely be described as essential viewing for those who crave cultural discourse, and with further viewings, the appreciation will only increase tenfold.
Luce is the story of a high school student that seemingly has it all. Growing up as a soldier in Eritrea, he comes to America and is taken in by adoptive parents. He is a track star, the valedictorian, a student loved by classmates and faculty alike. Yet one teacher seems to have it out for Luce, and at first, it’s hard to tell whom to believe. This is an extremely relatable premise at its core as many former students can blame an imaginary grievance with a teacher for certain problems. This point of departure however, allows for the rest of the film to slowly root itself in the minds of the audience.
As the film progresses, the tension slowly becomes more and more palpable until it seems ready to burst. Deeply complex questions are asked in every scene, and for great reason. Truth, identity, race, and more are all cross-examined with one another, and with its ensemble cast, Luce provides many different angles of observation. Tim Roth and Naomi Watts are Luce’s adoptive parents, and they provide a lot of the discourse within the film, specifically Watts. Octavia Spencer is Luce’s teacher that becomes more and more fleshed out as the film progresses, and she has a plethora powerful moments. It’s moments like hers that separate this film from others, which would not spend time in the minute details of her life. Rounding out the film is Kelvin Harrison Jr., who expertly plays Luce, never knowing whether or not he is manipulating everyone around him. All these characters have varying viewpoints, and all the opinions present make for a more enriching film.
Writer/director Julius Onah also does a fantastic job at pushing Luce to be an ominous enigma through its brilliant screenplay. From the moment the audience is introduced to Luce, we see what we want to see. There can be no question that he is anything other than what is being presented. Yet this image of him slowly becomes corrupted, and the film warns us of placing people into categories. It’s a brilliant method of subverting expectations in viewers, and rewards those who want to delve deeper into the mind of Luce. Revelations occur periodically that don’t feel placed in the film for shock value, but instead allows for more contemplation.
Onah and JC Lee’s script is perhaps the best of the year thus far. It asks crucial questions of truth, in a time where it is more pivotal than ever. And brilliantly, the truths exposed are not always the full truth. The film notions for the necessity to investigate as much as possible before coming to a conclusion. At every reveal however, it becomes easy to fall back into place and choose sides. And although, there is no particularly correct “side” in the film, personal biases may influence who seems to be the protagonist versus the antagonist. The ingenuity of Luce lies in its nuance and its subtleties.
Luce is definitely a slow burn, but the payoff is ridiculously effective. With blaring commentary on America and the racial tensions it suffers so often, this film is coming out right when it is needed. For the answers we are seeking may not always be in front of us. And if they were, the best course of action would be to research regardless, if merely to reaffirm ones beliefs. In an era that the term “fake news” is used so often and the legitimacy of massive events is questioned, nothing seems unworthy of a second viewpoint. Luckily, Luce provides more than just two, and all of the views are equally enthralling in their own right.
Luce is celebrating its New York premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and is part of the Movies Plus section.