Directed by Julius Onah. Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth.
The Plot: Teenager Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) didn’t have the usual childhood. Having spent the first few years of his life in war-torn Eritrea, he knows about the darkness that dwells inside people. Taken in by married couple Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), he’s now living the American dream. He’s a model student, the best in his year and has a promising future ahead when he graduates. His teacher Harriet (Octavia Spencer) has nurtured his talent, but when he writes a disturbing essay she approaches Amy and Peter with the news that their adopted son is not all that he seems. Concerned about his future, Luce’s parents are unsure how to react. As Harriet’s concern and attention grows ever more present, Luce goes into defence mode. Nothing is going to threaten his future…
The Verdict: People are not always what they seem, a fact that filmmakers have been keen to exploit in many genres from horrors to thrillers to comedies (the late, great Peter Sellers hid his real persona behind his characters). It’s the premise of Luce, a subtle and consistently engaging American family drama which in itself is not quite what it seems. It sets itself up as a clash of wills between a promising student, his concerned / borderline-obsessive teacher and his parents who are caught in the crossfire. It’s the stuff of thrillers which involve a shoot-out at the end and a smiling wink at the camera in the knowledge that the lead character has got away with it without being detected. Luce is a more sophisticated affair, a slow-burn character study which focuses more on power dynamics in the school environment and the limits of parenting.
At what point should a parent call out a child’s questionable behaviour or begrudgingly accept his version of events?
J.C. Lee adapts his own stage play here, with director Julius Onah utilising the tools of cinema like close-ups and careful staging of his cameras to get closer to the characters and potentially their true intents. Luce is a young man who is smart, sharp and driven – the leader of tomorrow who is an all-rounder in high school. He’s admired by his school principal, who knows that students like Luce are few and far between. Kelvin Harrison Jr. does an admirable job here of keeping the audience guessing as to what’s going on inside Luce’s mind. There are no simple answers here. Is he just misunderstood by Harriet and his parents? Or is there something darker at work which suggests a manipulative mind which is nimbly able to cover his dirty tracks and still look innocent? Could Luce be a monster-in-the-making? Onah doesn’t try to force this point. He’s more focused on how people can turn on each other or accept a version of the truth because it’s in their own interests.
Watch how Amy and Peter adjust their behaviour through the course of the film, as they realise how little they actually know about Luce and his life both within school and without. Watts and Roth can of course play these parent roles in their sleep, but they deliver finely nuanced performances which just require a loaded glance or a sudden turn of phrase to show shifting loyalties. Following on from her creepy turn in Ma, Spencer brings depth and barely-contained anger to her teacher role as Harriet crosses lines and becomes increasingly obsessed with taking Luce down a peg or two. It veers close to being manipulative, but thanks to Spencer she keeps the story on the right track. The film isn’t quite as smart as it thinks it is though. It would be enough to suggest that Luce is not all he seems, but Onah feels the need to suggest that every other character is the same, from Luce’s ex-girlfriend to a High School friend who got shafted by Harriet. That might be part of the character arcs for the story, but it’s an unnecessary distraction from the central character focus. However, Luce has enough bright sparks in the acting department and its carefully revealed, multi-layered storyline to warrant a B for effort.