It’s rare to see a film so courageous as Luce. The movie demands a lot from its audience. It mercilessly refuses to be easily constrained, consistently undermines conventions and expectations, and delves deeply into moral uncertainty.
Like other Sundance selections including Get Out and Sorry to Bother You, Luce is a powerful examination of the African American experience. Directed by Julius Onah, based on a play by J.C Lee (who co-wrote the screenplay), the film shows none of its stage roots. The story easily occupies the scope of the big screen.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr. stars as Luce, a valedictorian and athlete who embodies all the expectations his school has for the star pupil. Luce is the adopted child of two white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), who’ve raised him with a genuine level of pride and love and have attempted to overcome the trauma of Luce’s early childhood in war-torn Africa.
When a teacher (Ocatavia Spencer) sees cause for concern in Luce’s writings and behavior, the film twists itself into knots trying to balance the expectations of the school, community and parents, while at the same time avoiding prejudicial jumps to conclusions.
The film finds its strength within this deeply gray area. Each participant brings their own perspectives to the events at play. Onah’s film forces these uncomfortable confrontations with a delicate hand, never veering into melodrama or hyperbole. Each individual action is entirely keeping with character, making the divide even more shattering.
Teen life often feels like a balance between an angelic rise to adulthood and careening to sociopathy, and few movies have ever trod this line better. Adding in debate about what gets counted as “black” in American culture, and how these varying expectations collide among different members of the community, Luce is one of the most provocative and intelligent films on the subject yet crafted. This profound movie may have challenges finding receptive audiences, but those willing to give it a shot are in for one of the most astonishing accomplishments in American cinema for some time.