MOVIE REVIEW: Luce
Official selection of the 7th Chicago Critics Film Festival
LUCE— 5 STARS
LESSON #1: POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE TEACHER-STUDENT INTERACTION — Reflect for a moment at this onset of what you were like in high school. Were you destined for great things, a work in progress, or unfortunately somewhere less than that? Did any teacher push or inspire you or did you will yourself? Think about how you talked to your teachers. Were your interactions good or bad? In return, think about how your teachers talked to you. Were they supportive or difficult? Did either of side really tell it like it was or did both teacher and student dance around what they really wanted to say with pleasantries and boundaries of discipline? This is the angry arena of Julius Onah’s Luce.
Percolating like a caustic chemical reaction, the morality play of Luce brashley destroys any such limitations of language and interaction. Not to get entirely Biblical, but the intensity of this movie would light the well-worn 1 Corinthians 13:11 verse of “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” on fire. Because, by the time you get to the twelfth verse next that says “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall fully know, even as I have been fully known” you’re going to need help bringing your jaw up off the floor with this movie.
Luce dangles the future of one young man between the precarious pendulum swinging from struggle to success and back. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of It Comes at Night plays high school valedictorian senior Luce Edgar. He is the paradigm of emergent perfection in the eyes of his teachers as an accomplished learner, athlete, debater, and peer leader. He is also a miraculous case of rescue and rehabilitation. Luce spent the elementary years of his life subjected to the war-torn horrors of his native Eritrea before being adopted by the upper-crust Peter and Amy Edger (dual Oscar nominees Tim Roth and Naomi Watts). It took years of counseling and careful parenting to reach this stable point.
LESSON #2: THE PRESSURES SADDLED ON A MODEL STUDENT — Seemingly everyone, from administrators to classmates, looks at Luce with dreamy wonder and speaks all the cliches of “special,” “important,” “bright future,” and “going places.” Encircling and expected perfection like that is hard to maintain, no matter the strength of the student. One screw-up can crumble all of that good will and blow away the protective fog of one’s reputation. Superficial affluence like that becomes too important, and the stresses on Luce show and push him to darker outlets.
All genuflect to his soaring potential save one. The person who is most critical of Luce is his history and government teacher Harriet Wilson, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer. The complementary pedestal she puts him on to motivate his more slack peers masks a subtle side-eyed shade that festers inside. In her eyes, he’s too perfect and hiding something.
LESSON #3: THE ERRORS OF TOKENISM — But it’s not just Luce that incurs the vexation of Ms. Wilson. From her learned perch of politics, she holds different kids to different standards, and they all know it. One student voices “We all exist to justify her belief of the world,” a stance that plays benefits against responsibilities. The labels of tokenism based on surface level traits Ms. Wilson hampers her students with strip away freedom, trust, strength, and individuality.
A provocative final essay on Pan-African revolutionary Frantz Fanon voicing parallel violence from Luce and a privacy-breaking locker search discovery of illegal fireworks seized by Ms. Wilson sets her red-flag-sewing loom into mass production. By the time, Ms. Wilson calls Amy Edgar to report her findings and concerns, the throbbing bass of the musical score from the duo of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury overwhelms our ears and ratchets up the tension. It’s the first raised eyebrow of many to follow as all involved, led by Watts’ loyal mother, begin to investigate the polished reputation that may or may not define Luce Edgar.
The enigmas revealed by the spiraling escalation of manipulative confrontations are incredible in Luce. Through the masterful mystery of folding facades written by director Julius Onah and playwright/writer J.C. Lee of How to Get Away With Murder, there is a feverish anticipation of who’s going to turn, who’s going to crack, who’s going to fall, and who’s going to rise. The tension present is unpredictable and captivating.
LESSON #4: VENDETTAS ARE PROBLEMATIC — Simmering behind classroom smiles, what the mounting drama of Luce becomes is a straight-up vendetta, one between teacher and student. The bloodless lines of bitterness fortify to hurt people and force chosen sides. This is a saint versus a monster, with little middle, and a guessing game of which one is really which. It’s a battle the actors sell without flaw.
Cinematographer Larkin Seiple (Swiss Army Man) hits the actors, and us, right between the eyes with slow dolly movements when presenting these faces of guilt or innocence. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. gives, in this writer’s opinion, the best lead acting effort so far this year with every calming smile of confidence and every bead of nervous sweat. We don’t know if we’re looking at the unseen and brewing trouble of a radical terrorist or the fortitude of a champion. That’s all Kelvin and his outstanding control of composure.
His will is matched by the turbulence unfurled by Octavia Spencer. She dramatically cuts down her overused Hattie McDaniel-esque exasperated maven act we’ve seen too much of in films like The Shape of Water and Hidden Figures since her Academy Award victory for The Help. Here in Luce, she squeezes every ounce of crumbling poise to poke and prod the situation with needle after needle of frazzled nerves. She’s a brilliant foil to Harrison.
The direction from Onah, in a reclamation project of his own after The Cloverfield Paradox disaster, captures each of these powerful performances. The tone of this move evokes something akin to David Fincher’s style of suspense and that’s a glorious thing. The material deeper than this premise provides these opponents with beguiling subplots (a mentally ill sister for her and a damaged ex-girlfriend for him) that become layers of motivations and compulsions. Harrison and Spencer should earn serious Oscar consideration for their accomplishments, as should as Onah and Lee. That compelling and inescapable score from Barrow and Salisbury (Annihilation) deserves merited consideration as well. All in all, this writer is dying to see how Luce plays against a potentially jaded public audience just in time for back-to-school season.
LESSON #5: ARE KIDS PRODUCTS OF THEIR ENVIRONMENT? — The reflective implications of the movie are ominous, to say the least. Noted educational author Jonothan Kozol has seven theories on learning and this school-teacher-by-day film critic sees bits of each one spun and challenged in Luce, from warping the value of the “American Dream,” opportunity, and social consensus to the disparaging environment, culture, and human nature seeds and triggers that either enhance or prohibit learning. Luce is unequivocally brazen with its volatile elements of societal commentary. This all may be played as improbable high theater, but it has balls to twist our “but what if it really went down” sensibilities and fears. Few films come along with that kind of depth and weight.