Scene from the new film Luce, featuring (from left) Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Kelvin Harrison Jr. The film is currently playing at Cineplex Odeon Theatres. Photo courtesy lucemovie.com

Film Review: Anxieties about race in polite society percolate in Luce

Robert Moyes offers his take on the new movie from director Julius Onah and writer J.C. Lee

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.

Rating: ***1/2

Directed by Julius Onah

*****

COMING SOON:

The Goldfinch

Based on Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tome, this drama focuses on a boy who survives a terrorist attack that kills his mother. With Nicole Kidman.

Hustlers

Some strippers decide to implement their own redistribution-of-wealth policy by robbing Wall Street millionaires. With Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu and Julia Stiles.

The Report

Adam Driver and Annette Bening star in a dark, disturbing – and truth-based – examination of the CIA’s interrogation-as-torture policy in the post-9/11 world.

Downton Abbey

The quips and the martinis will both be very dry when the stately Crawleys graduate from TV to the silver screen. An impending royal visit from King George V and Queen Mary will surely give Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Dockery lots to bicker about.

Rambo: Last Blood

Sylvester Stallone goes up against a Mexican drug cartel when those foolish fellows kidnap the daughter of his old friend.

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