It is hard to explain exactly what Luce is. Initially a serious look at the pressure put on high-achieving black students in US schools, it shifts so many times – even into trashy thriller territory – that a fair summary is nearly impossible. Heavy-handed and at times unintentionally funny, it is also raucously entertaining and occasionally piercingly well-observed, skewering white liberalism with astonishing efficiency.
Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the star pupil at his school. He was adopted from war-torn Eritrea by two white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). Heavy expectations are disrupted as he enters his final year of high school, a transition which brings with it an identity crisis that unnerves his oddly obsessive history teacher (Octavia Spencer). J.C. Lee and Julius Onah’s script touches on every hot-button topic it can, from race to sexual assault to the fear of school shooters, and while a lot of its discussion can feel superficial (especially around mental health), its bold confidence is riveting.
Harrison Jr. is absolutely exceptional as Luce, who constantly shifts identities based on his company. With his parents he’s composed and charming, more of a lad with his friends, and icily sinister whenever he’s alone with his teacher. His performance and its intricacies are vital to the functionality of the plot, holding everything together as the utterly off-the-rails ending approaches.
Watts gets saddled with some silly lines, but does well in a role that essentially conglomerates all ‘performatively woke’ Twitter users into a single person. Onah and Lee clearly had fun writing for her and Roth, and this enjoyment is infectious.
Luce may be flawed and sometimes ridiculous, but you are always desperate to see what’s around the next corner in this compelling story. Meanwhile Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s urgent, pounding score is one of Luce’s greatest triumphs, driving the action forward with welcome aggression and speed.
CAST: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth
DIRECTOR: Julius Onah
WRITERS: Julius Onah and J.C. Lee (screenplay), J.C. Lee (stageplay)
SYNOPSIS: A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealised image of their son, whom they adopted from war-torn Eritrea, as an alarming discovery by a teacher threatens his status as an all-star student.