It has often been said that slavery was America’s Original Sin, while a bitter legacy of racism continues to haunt that troubled country.
And with Black Lives Matter as a distant backdrop, along comes Luce, an absorbing and deliberately ambiguous drama about an all-star black student who may be far from the “poster child” that everyone wants him to be.
Rescued a decade ago from war-ravaged Eritrea where he was a child soldier, Luce was adopted by a white liberal couple in Arlington, Va. and has been groomed to be a model student and a progressive symbol of black achievement. Academically gifted, articulate and a fine athlete, Luce is the school’s golden boy – until an assignment to write in the voice of a recent historical figure sees him exploring the legacy of a blood-soaked African revolutionary who believed violence was essential to achieve liberty.
Luce’s teacher (Octavia Spencer), a wise and no-nonsense black woman, is so concerned that she takes a peek in his locker … only to find something alarming enough that she reaches out to Luce’s parents (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth). And the plot rolls on from there, with everyone’s beliefs, attitudes and expectations becoming unexpectedly challenged.
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The performances are notably fine, from Spencer’s savvy and strict teacher to Watts and Roth, who slowly reveal the cracks in a not-so-perfect marriage. And newcomer Kelvin Harrison Jr. is compelling as Luce. He plays the character as often as acting: he is trying to mirror the perfection that his parents and teachers expect from him. But Luce complains about “being put in a box,” and those stifling demands have created resentments that occasionally spark unattractive behaviour.
Luce created a stir when it debuted at Sundance, and there is a lot to praise about this subtle and intelligent film, which depicts well-meaning but flawed people whose tidy lives start to crumble under the pressure to maintain their individual belief systems.
Admittedly the storyline gets a bit crowded as Luce turns into a low-key thriller, culminating with two shocking acts of vandalism. But the film’s refusal to resolve all its subplots is an effective comment on the challenge of finding the truth in an age of racial anxiety and animosity. Luce is confident enough to ask questions, but provide no answers.
Directed by Julius Onah
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