There’s an early scene in Luce, a riveting new psychodrama about race and preconceptions, that’s as tense as any thriller, and all it really comes down to is two people talking in a classroom, their deceptively polite conversation shading into passive-aggressive antagonism. One of the two is the title character, a shining model student played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. The other is his government and history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), the only instructor at their Virginia high school who ever seems to challenge the star athlete, debate-club champion, and soon-to-be valedictorian — though she, too, views him as an “important example to the school,” a Black kid who’s climbed his way to the top of the class.
Based off the play of the same title by J.C Lee (who’s as well co-written the screenplay with director Julius Onah), this skillful adaptation begins with a tense encounter between Luce’s adoptive mother Amy (Naomi Watts) and Harriet about a homework assignment of Luce’s. The assignment in question is a troubling essay: Asked to write in the voice of a historical figure, Luce has adopted the perspective of Frantz Fanon, the French West Indian philosopher who famously made a case for violence as a moral response to colonialism. The paper gels uneasily with Luce’s background as a child-solider from the war-torn Congo, whisked off to a new life in suburban America at the age of seven. More pressingly, there’s the matter of what Ms. Wilson has found in his locker: a brown paper bag stuffed with dangerous, illegal fireworks. It immediately tasks Amy with a quandary: confront her son or let it slide? Luce, himself, insists they’re not his (the kids often use each other’s lockers, and in the opening shot, we only see an unidentifiable someone put them down), and that’s just one part of the loaded mystery of this gripping, suspenseful film, it constantly pivoting around the concealed motivations and actions of its protagonist. Amy’s inability on who to believe allows her to go into detective mode, Watts delivers an absorbing performance rich with internal conflict, and complimented by a gruff man-of-the-house Tim Roth, who plays Luce’s adoptive father.
Is Luce a budding radical, hiding extreme intentions behind a façade of smiling success and promise? Or is he just a victim of expectations, of the way his community can see him only in binary terms, either as someone who’s overcome his past to become an “example of why America works” or as a kind of ticking time bomb in inevitable violence? Luce lets those questions hang in the air constantly and unsettlingly over its entire runtime. The plot turns out to be a puzzle with many pieces, falling slowly into place: a classmate (Andrea Bang) recovering from a traumatizing incident at a party; a former track star (Astro) grappling with his own place in the school’s hierarchy of cultural expectations; the mentally ill sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake) that Ms. Wilson looks after in her free time. With Luce, himself, positioned as a question mark, the point of view often drifts to that of his white, affluent parents trying to dissect their son’s behavior, coming to terms with their inability to know what’s really going on in his head.
Perhaps intentionally, Watts and Roth have played a suburban married couple before, in Michael Haneke’s scene-by-scene remake of his own anti-thriller Funny Games. There’s a touch of that Austrian provocateur’s disquieting methods in Luce’s interest in middle-class culture, as well as the disparities in privilege built into “polite” western society. Though one might think, too, of the great Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, given how much the film hinges on deception, on what characters know, and what others don’t. But, as said before, Luce himself is arguably the biggest of them all. The prickly conflict between the student and his teacher, a war waged through quietly heated back-and-forths in academic spaces, is really a debate about responsibility — about what roles they’re obligated to assume.
A bulk of Luce belongs to Kelvin Harrison Jr., the breakout talent of 2017’s It Comes at Night, who perfectly captures the poise and charisma of an academic golden child, the kind who knows just how to talk to adults, projecting sincerity and gratitude with just a touch of good humor, so as not to come off an unlikeable overachiever. It’s his blend of charisma that helps build up to the sudden bursts of anger, which underscore Luce’s distinctive identity crisis. Harrison Jr. also lets us see, early and often, how the congeniality is a kind of front: a whole manufactured persona Luce can toggle on or off. And as Ms. Wilson carefully questions him about his essay, his mask of charisma slips, just long enough for him to issue what sounds an awful lot like a veiled threat. It’s a remarkable, chilling performance: from Harrison, certainly, but also from his character, playing code-switching mind games with his teacher.
With Luce director Julius Onah makes a significant comeback after the massive misfire that is The Cloverfield Paradox. Onah sorts through the murky scenario with a meticulous calculation. But its his and Lee’s script that sticks too close to the theatrical roots of the material, sometimes drifting into thematically load-bearing and overzealous speeches that might land better on the stage. Yet Onah still opens up to the material, too, giving it an urgent cinematic pulse. (The score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, following up their amazing work on Annihilation, helps in this department, its rhythmic mixtures of grunts and clangs and strange instrumentation provides an undercurrent of tension, stress and even menace.) Luce ultimately rests on the strength of its performances — on Watts’ seesawing internal struggle, on Spencer’s principled seriousness, and especially Harrison Jr.’s fascinating unknowability, on the way he builds Luce in layers on top of layers, asking us to pull them back to try to find the real him underneath. Near the film’s end, the young man flashes his mother a small expression of insincere emotion, and it’s as unsettling to us as it is to her. The more we look into it, the less we truly know. A provocative, enthralling puzzle, Luce engrossingly weaves the suburban drama and a sociopolitical mystery into a complex inquiry on class and race.