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With: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea Bang, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Omar Shariff Brunson Jr., Noah Gaynor, Astro, Christopher Mann
Written by: J.C. Lee, Julius Onah, based on a play by J.C. Lee
Directed by: Julius Onah
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content, nudity and some drug use
Running Time: 109
Date: 08/01/2019

Luce (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Locker Step

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on a play by J.C. Lee, this drama is unsurprisingly talky and static, but it also tackles complex issues of race, privilege, and expectations in a deliberately inconclusive and provocative way.

In Luce, liberal, adoptive parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth) are proud of their adopted son Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), whom they rescued from war-torn Eritrea when he was a child. An accomplished student, debater, and athlete at his school, Luce nonetheless arouses suspicion in teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) when he turns in a paper on the political radical Frantz Fanon. She searches his locker and discovers illegal, deadly fireworks.

Luce reacts with intellectual indignation, accusing Ms. Wilson of invading his privacy. Amy and Peter stick by their son, while it becomes clear that Ms. Wilson has a previous track record of investigating students, and also deals with a mentally ill sister, Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake). But Luce is also involved with a girl, Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang), who may or may not have been molested at a party. As the situation comes to a head, the truth becomes increasingly elusive.

Co-written by Lee and director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox), Luce has a clean, unexceptional look, full of evenly-lit interiors, and it contains a great deal of awkward expositional dialogue, explaining the hard road it took for Luce and his parents to arrive at this place. But it gets its power from what it does not show. The contraband fireworks and drugs become like a sleight-of-hand trick when it is revealed that Luce and his teammates share lockers, and any contents of any locker could belong to any of them.

In another example, Stephanie's ordeal at the party is not seen, only described, from her own hazy point of view, and Luce himself could have been one of her tormentors, or her rescuer, and the answer is never known. Ms. Wilson is perhaps the most interesting character — piloted by another masterful Spencer performance — able to see a little more clearly that some, but not as clearly as others.

Ultimately, the movie asks questions about how we view others, what we expect from them, and how we react when those expectations are not met. Despite its flaws, Luce is a strong, effective, and useful movie.

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