Julius Onah directs a provocative psychological drama about an adopted teen struggling with societal expectations.
Meet Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). He’s the adopted son of affluent Virginians Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) , the star of the track team, and a straight-A student. When we’re introduced to Luce, he’s giving a speech to his entire school, wearing a charming smile and thanking his parents and teachers for turning him into the person he is today. It was no easy task – his parents adopted Luce from a far-off, war-torn country, and he’s spent years overcoming a language barrier and untold (and largely, unexplained) trauma. But that’s all behind him now.
Or is it?
The “trouble” begins when Luce’s history teacher, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) gives her class the assignment to write in the voice of a historical figure. Luce chooses revolutionary philosopher Frantz Fanon, whose writings often encouraged violent uprisings to seize control of corrupt governments. Luce winds up doing too good of a job writing as Fanon, frightening Ms. Wilson to the point she searches his locker – where she finds a bag full of illegal fireworks.
The remainder of Luce’s runtime delves into the potential implications therein. For the entire time Luce has been living in the United States, he’s been molded into a golden boy, the opposite of a stereotype, a subversion of the racist expectations society has onto him. But isn’t the standard that Luce will constantly be the living embodiment of the American Dream just as limiting?
It’s here that director Julius Onah – and the film as a whole – pulls off its greatest trick, a catch-22 that inherently implicates the viewer. If you assume Luce’s guilt and poor intentions, you put him in a box. Yet if you assume his innocence, you equally confine his humanity, assuming he is incapable or uninterested in rebelling against the suffocating system around him.
But isn’t the standard that Luce will constantly be the living embodiment of the American Dream just as limiting?
Finding this engaging level of ambiguity around its central figure is only possible thanks to the phenomenal central performance. Kelvin Harrison Jr. turns in pristine work, conveying just enough of the character’s psychology without ever settling exactly where he stands. His striking screen presence brings to life the diagram provided by the the script. That Luce was adapted from a play seems inconceivable – how could any actor convey the necessary levels of nuance and detail from as far away as a stage?
The rest of the cast turns in strong performances as well, especially Spencer and Watts. And make no mistake, their work is also essential here, as the screenplay rides the line between crafting people and the mere outlines of them. Still, Onah and co-writer J.C. Lee (who wrote the original play) have compelling stuff on their hands, with a script that overcomes its own clumsiness, even if the expansion to a feature has brought with it some supporting characters whose arcs feel a bit half-baked. You get the sense the filmmakers wanted to comment on the ways we treat mental illness and sexual assault, but neither subplot quite gets there.
But this is certainly a marked improvement over Onah’s prior movie, the much-maligned, straight-to-streaming Cloverfield Paradox. His camera moves and weaves around his characters, and the filmmaking plays to Harrison’s strengths. There’s also a pervasive dread around the whole affair throughout – thanks in part to collaboration with composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (who also scored Alex Garland’s last two movies). Perhaps it’s fitting that a film so committed to rejecting notions of flawlessness is far from perfect itself. At the end of the day, this is a text with an uncompromising view of it’s subject as a three-dimensional and imperfect human being, which is enough to earn Luce a recommendation. Meet Luce. It’s worth it.