A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star student.
‘Luce’ is an intriguing thriller from Julius Onah, centering on an all-star high school student who may or may not be quite as nice as everyone thinks he is. That student is Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who seems to have it all. He’s a superb athlete, academically excellent, popular with his friends, girls and the teachers, and his background as an adopted refugee from war-torn Eritrea makes him a perfect candidate to be the poster boy for the school. His history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), appears to be the only person sceptical of this perfectly cultivated image, and much of ‘Luce’ is about the war of attrition that grows between her and Luce, and whether or not Luce is hiding a darker, more manipulative side underneath the warm and friendly exterior. It’s a solid premise and I felt the filmmakers used this outline to explore some interesting themes.
Onah’s approach is to build this into a slow burn thriller as Harriet gathers more evidence that suggests Luce isn’t quite the nice guy he makes himself out to be, whilst those surrounding her start to doubt her credibility as her behaviour starts to seem more irrational. Octavia Spencer’s performance is terrific and she’s the heartbeat of this story, and we really empathise with the difficult position she finds herself in. Kelvin Harrison Jr is much less sympathetic as Luce, particularly as we learn more about him, and I liked how the film lets the audience see his true colours as it also shows how everyone besides Harriet is either blissfully or wilfully ignorant about his actions. Based on his background and his ability, Luce has been thrust into a position of responsibility in representing the school and outwardly he embraces the responsibility but internally he resents it. There is interesting commentary about stereotyping and racism in the way Luce is treated, with Luce himself commenting that positive stereotyping is still judging him based on his colour and background nonetheless.
Tim Roth and Naomi Watts play Luce’s adoptive parents and they have perhaps the most interesting roles, as they are privy to Harriet’s concerns and have enough reason to believe her, yet are torn between protecting their son and his image despite evidence to suggest otherwise. I liked their performances (and Spencer’s) but this is really a breakout display for Kelvin Harrison Jr, who is mesmerising in the central role. The way he can seemingly switch from the nice as pie star student to a calculating and malicious individual is captured superbly in his performance, and every time he was on screen he had my attention. I did think ‘Luce’ started to run out of steam towards the end and the conclusion didn’t wrap things up in a satisfying way for me, with the slow burn nature of the plot meaning some aspects of the storyline dragged, but this is a good showcase for some excellent performances and it’s a thought provoking piece of work.
Directed By: Julius Onah
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz, Brian Bradley, Marsha Stephanie Blake and Andrea Bang