In this movie, Luce is a high-school senior from war-torn Africa; he’s been adopted by an affluent white family in America and he’s poised to become a massive success in life with his straight-A grades, awesome athletic abilities, handsome smile and winning charm. But when he turns in an essay that seems to indicate that he’s harboring violent thoughts, all of that is thrown into doubt as Luce, his parents and a troubled teacher become embroiled in a struggle to get at the truth about Luce: good-hearted survivor or manipulative sociopath? This movie has got a LOT on its mind; race, success, appropriation, stereotypes and the myriad ways we all define and feel about those things, often more differently from our neighbors than we might think. I’d say Luce is destined to be a controversial movie, except it seems more like it’s destined to be an overlooked movie, which is too bad.
The cast, particularly that central quartet of characters, is brilliant. Octavia Spencer gives a locked-down performance as the teacher; it’s kind of an atypical performance that doesn’t rely on a lot of her usual strengths and she’s very, very good. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth are also both excellent as Luce’s parents. Watts is as excellent as she always is; she’s a woman who wants desperately to believe in her son, but doubts flicker across her face even in her strongest moments. Tim Roth gives one of his more minimal performances, but it fits the character; he’s a man who has let his wife take the lead in most things, you start to figure out, but he can say volumes with his stillness – his best moment in the movie is a long, wordless, searching long at another character. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is really, really excellent as Luce here. I’d seen him prior to this only in It Comes at Night, a movie I barely connected with at all, and I didn’t recognize him from that here, but this performance signals great things from this young man. He has an easy, natural charm and affability, but he’s also capable of cranking that charm just a notch too far, making the audience go from liking him and wanting to believe him to doubting him and feeling just a little uneasy in a split second and, often, then go right back with a moment of what seems like aching sincerity. With a lesser actor in this role, the movie would fall apart completely, but Harrison holds things together as the script keeps the viewer off balance. Fine supporting turns are provided by Norbert Leo Butz as a harried principal, Andrea Bang as a troubled fellow student of Luce’s, Astro as another, even more troubled fellow student and Marsha Stephanie Blake as Octavia Spencer’s mentally ill sister.
The movie isn’t perfect; few movies are, I guess. Onah does a very journeyman job of directing and the movie has the superficial gloss of a Lifetime movie, which is probably intentional and kind of a commentary on the hidden depths behind that sunny, shiny exterior, but, still, it doesn’t look great. And the script isn’t able to really nail every beat it wants; it just has too much on the ball, too much it wants to do, but it doesn’t fumble anything very badly at all, so I’ll excuse a couple of clumsy bits. What it is . . . well, it’s a movie that is very based in exploring these specific characters even as it uses them to explore larger social and moral issues. It’s able to do both of these things; the characters always feel very human and emotionally driven, even as they do function as stand-ins. And it’s sure to provide a lot of food for thought and thoughtful conversation afterwards. The script has a couple of surprising beats and the characters will surprise you too and that means Luce feels very refreshing. It’s, ultimately, a really great movie, thoughtful, surprising and also just a great entertainment, a movie that wants the uncertainty of a psychological thriller and the integrity of an issue movie and somehow manages to pull them both off to near perfection. I don’t know if we’ll hear much about Luce once award season rolls around; my gut tells me that we probably won’t. But don’t let it slip past you. It’s a sneaky one, in all the right ways. 4 stars.
tl;dr – thoughtful film features a great ensemble and a compelling script with a lot of ideas; boasts the energy of a thriller and real emotional catharsis to boot. 4 stars.
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