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‘Luce’ Review: Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts Face Off in Fascinating Study of Race and Class

Julius Onah adapts the 2013 Off-Broadway play into a provocative actors showcase.

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Neon releases the film on Friday, August 2.

At the root of “Luce” is a fascinating mystery, but its solution is beside the point. This smart and sophisticated inquiry into race and class does little to alter the underlying appeal of J.C. Lee’s 2013 play. As questions swirl around whether black Virginia teen Luce (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), an accomplished football player and debate-team team captain, harbors revolutionary beliefs and violent tendencies, the movie allows the audience to see it both ways.

His adoptive white parents, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), don’t know whether to defend their son from the accusations of Luce’s stern teacher Harriet (Octavia Spencer) or take them at face value. That oscillating perspective allows this grounded drama to develop a remarkable degree of moment-to-moment suspense, and it remains an actors’ showcase even as the premise risks turning into a gimmick.

The third feature from director Julias Onah (and a significant comeback following his disappointing Netflix-released “The Cloverfield Paradox”) unfolds as a slow but steady burn. From its first moments, Luce’s academic pedigree is immediately clear; a well-spoken debater who radiates the same degree of confidence at the microphone that he does on the field, he seems like the kind of unassailable student who gives his school a good name. His beaming parents, who adopted him from war-torn Eritrea at the age of seven, bathe in his perfection. But when Harriet approaches Amy with her concerns, their doubts begin to percolate.

It begins with a tense encounter between Amy and Harriet, when the teacher reveals a homework essay that Luce wrote about African writer Frantz Fanon, praising the controversial Pan-Africanist’s support of violence to combat colonization. Searching Luce’s locker, she discovers a bag of fireworks and hands them over. Suddenly, Amy’s tasked with an immediate quandary: confront her son or let it slide? After conferring with her husband, she fails to muster the confidence to make a decision, and it doesn’t take long for Luce to come across the confiscated materials in the kitchen cabinet. That discovery could yield a third-act confrontation in a simpler narrative, but here sets the stage for a tangled set of developments that keep the uncertainty of Luce’s motives — and the question of how to parse them — bathed in ambiguity.

To some degree, the nature of the fireworks and even Luce’s interest in Fanon’s work are MacGuffins that establish several enigmatic confrontations. One eerie exchange between Luce and Harriet leaves the teacher accusing her disciple of a veiled threat, while Luce himself winds up stalking Harriet on Facebook in an attempt to understand her own fixation on his behavior. Spencer’s character, who wrestles with the upsetting hardships facing her drug-addled sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake), either projects her personal frustrations onto resentment for Luce — the benefactor of a white family supporting his upward mobility — or has genuine concern for his future.

Amy can’t land on who to believe, and as the movie allows her to go into detective mode, Watts delivers an absorbing performance rich with internal conflict, and complimented by Roth’s gruff man-of-the-house posturing. “I read the Communist Manifesto in high school and called everyone ‘Comrade’ for a month,” she says with a shrug, but it doesn’t take her long to reconsider.

Yet the bulk of “Luce” belongs to Harrison, the breakout talent of 2017’s “It Comes at Night,” who blends charisma with sudden bursts of anger to underscore Luce’s distinctive identity crisis. His name itself — chosen after his mother couldn’t pronounce his original African one — highlights the movie’s ongoing exploration of the degree to which Luce has reconciled his troubled origins with the assimilation of his teenage life, as well as the role of his blackness in a white family. “I don’t like tokenism,” he says at one point. Rehearsing a victorious graduation speech to an empty room, he begins to sob. “Luce” needs no firm answers to make the emotion of the moment resonate.

Onah sorts through the murky scenario with a pulsating score that creeps into the ominous circumstances, but “Luce” is largely devoid of cinematic trickery. Instead, the filmmaker sticks close to the theatrical roots of the material, sometimes stumbling on wordy, overzealous monologues that might land better on the stage. But the cast goes to great lengths to sell the premise as it barrels toward a series of climactic showdowns, none more remarkable than a face-off between Watts and Spencer that seethes with spectacular tension — and reaches a devastating outcome. Along the way, various other figures from Luce’s class deepen the movie’s concerns to engage with compelling ideas surrounding privacy, responsibility, and teen sexuality. The psychological warfare at work is often so enthralling that it excuses the unresolved aspects of the narrative.

When “Luce” first launched onstage at Lincoln Center in 2013, it predated the rise of Trump-era bigotry on the national stage. Now, the speculative drama has even more upsetting ramifications. While never blunt symbols, each character in “Luce” carries a representative power; they’re societal figures seeking to resolve the ugliest tensions afflicting American society. In the movie’s closing shot, in a clear departure from limitations of the stage, Luce speeds toward the camera as if racing off to a terrifying future. Five years after the premise of “Luce” first took flight,  the ultimate destination of this young man — caught between so many identities and desires — remains a powerful open question.

Grade: B+

“Luce” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

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