Luce is an easy contender, if not likely winner for my favorite screenplay and set of performances of 2019. With Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, and an emotionally arresting Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the lead, the provocatively insightful narrative is as strong in front of the camera as it is behind it.
Based on a play by JC Lee, his and Julius Onah’s firecracker of a story follows Luce (Harrison Jr.), a former child soldier from Eritrea who, after being adopted by a white American couple (Watts and Tim Roth) and years of therapy, has become a super-achieving high school student and general exemplar of the American Dream. When one of his teachers (Spencer) finds disturbing content in his locker following another upsetting incident, Luce’s potentially trepid psyche is called into question as his peers, professors, and parents battle to defend or accuse him of a crime in the making.
Luce is a fascinatingly complicated character study voicing many minorities’ unspoken, pent-up furies—the film did for me, at least. The film and titular character honestly and unapologetically tackle the dehumanizing indignities of being held as a stereotypical or tokenistic icon, the cutting, disgraceful position of being seen as an idealized, aspirational demonstration or a wounding confirmation for your race. Onah smartly plays the film like a psychological thriller, an inspired choice driven in by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s uniquely fantastic score. The film’s music perfectly complements the swirling, churning moods afoot, and there’s nothing out there quite like the encroaching, violently hammering applauses comprising the absolutely killer “Skyhooker” theme.
As with the well-meaning people around him, Luce brutally toys with the audience’s expectations, avenging himself through viciously cunning shades of gray that themselves add to the moral depth surrounding the character. There’s a flickering pain behind his eyes, and while it would have been easy to lay the film’s message to rest there, Lee and Onah counterbalance Luce’s vision with Spencer’s character, Harriet. Herself an African American with her own set of personal issues, Harriet longs for her race to be seen excelling in the spotlight, and with Luce currently in it, wants to ensure her self-projection will remain there.
Is the idea selfish? Or noble? Are there limits to the unconditional love of a mother, as Watts’ Amy struggles to affirm? There are no easy answers to the intricately woven questions the characters in Luce posit, and that’s the beauty of the film. Well, that is until one annoying scene near the conclusion only there to make sure you really get the thematic points being made. Though the acting climax of the film, the scene frustratingly detracts from one’s self-appraisal of the film, leaving what could have been a beautifully haunting ending as a more neatly wrapped-up conclusion. Still, the final scenes following it at least mostly salvage it with more relational ambiguity.
Major props go to Neon on my part for adding another one-of-a-kind film into their catalogue. Luce is a masterclass in writing, acting, directing, and all the elements going into film that make cinematic storytelling great.
Fresh, ferocious, fearless