Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the very model of American youth. He is a star athlete and a student with honors. He’s kind, conscientious, and well-liked. Accordingly, the faculty asks him to deliver speech after speech, touting his ascent from hard times. One could interpret that as a school showing pride in their student, but it’s more likely that they are using Luce to pat themselves on the back for a job well done. Adopted as a former child soldier, Luce has far surpassed the expectations of everyone around him, but as a boiled down representative of the American Dream™️, he has impossible standards to live up to. Knowing the challenges he faces on a daily basis, Luce’s adoptive parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth) treat him with the care and respect he deserves.
Everyone wants Luce to do well and continue being a spectacular student/athlete–except for one history teacher. Peter and Amy meet Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) at a PTA function and, were it not for Luce casually calling her a bitch, the Edgars wouldn’t have had a second thought about her. An assignment she gives, asking students to write from the perspective of historical figures throughout time, proves an incident that warps the perception audiences initially have of all the characters involved. Rather than write in the voice of Abraham Lincoln or Mahatma Gandhi, Luce chose a relatively obscure philosopher Frantz Fanon. Fanon was a French West Indian whose core messaging was that violence was the only moral response to colonialism. Luce’s ideal image, Harriet argues, is a front for something unsettling, violent, and ugly underneath. Such accusations are not taken lightly, and it’s not clear whether Harriet expects more of Luce than he is prepared to offer, or if something in her background has prejudiced her to him. When Amy acknowledges the hypocrisy of another student writing a profile from Fidel Castro’s point of view not receiving any criticism, Harriet feels compelled to insist that Luce’s history as a child soldier makes this a different case.
In Q&As, director and co-writer Julius Onah has referenced the multitudes of personalities that take place in the film, ultimately trying its best to represent the “full spectrum of humanity”. Each scene offers a fresh appraisal of Luce, Amy, Peter, and Harriet; their interactions less of an attempt to break an impasse than a series of mind games and one-upmanship. As written, Onah and JC Lee (creator of the 2013 play Luce is based on) go out of their way to reinforce that ambiguity is not a bug of Luce, it’s a feature. A complex character with his own very unique set of circumstances, Kelvin Harrison Jr. has to tread a tightrope, presenting Luce as both the affable, well-liked, over-achiever while letting just enough of that facade slip to give his parents and the audience something to worry about. Harrison captures Luce as a moving target, constantly changing himself to fit the particular audience he has to win over in all situations. So gifted is Luce is best presenting himself at any given time, the audience is constantly evaluating if Luce is telling the truth. Even in a tearful confession where he tells his parents, “I can’t be perfect,” viewers can choose to read this as authentic or just another performance.
Without some background context of her own, Harriet would be presented as a one-dimensional villain through the eyes of the audience. By presenting her as a sister and a woman outside of the school, Harriet’s arguments can be capably explained. She never had the privilege of being raised by a well-to-do, white, liberal family and her own perception of a child too comfortable with destruction. In between the verbal clashes and dramatic fireworks of Luce, the film never loses sight of challenging viewers on their beliefs, while also examining identity, power, and privilege and how it’s wielded in this country.
The cast of the reliably excellent Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth are (unsurprisingly) compelling in their parts as opposite sides of the spectrum regarding Luce. Harriet must ask herself is she is policing kids on how to be her ideal representation of Black youth as the Edgars wrestle with doubting him for the first time. Amy, specifically, isn’t sure if she’s protecting her concept of Luce as she hopes he is rather than the flesh-and-blood son before her. Spencer’s performance as Harriet, while not as calculated as Luce, involves just as much code-switching and dressing for the part of a teacher in a prestigious school in Washington, D.C. Watts and Roth present each argument and dismissal as a microcosm of years’ worth of built-up animosity or resentment that take place over a long marriage. When Peter blows up at Luce’s explanations as “bullshit,” Amy’s injured look immediately reveals the questions she’s had over whether Peter ever truly accepted Luce as his son.
The comparison is easy to make, what with both being stage adaptations with stellar ensembles, but Luce mostly closely resembles Doubt. The usual complaint about stage plays adapted to film is present here, but when you have actors this good, it only make sense to train the camera on them. The outstanding cast reacts to verbal barbs like firecrackers going off in the room, carefully building the tension up to a final, shattering conclusion. For those on the fence – and you shouldn’t be, this is easily a contender for my year-end list – consider this an invitation to enjoy film in its highest form; a showcase of empathy and debate that hasn’t been made available much over the summer season.